Providing food security: Celebrating a one-of-its-kind food pantry in Ypsilanti

June 20, 2017  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

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Keeping their blood pressure in check or managing blood sugar levels — these are just two challenges patients face if they don’t have access to healthy food and quality produce.

And when the faculty and staff at the Ypsilanti Health Center (YHC) noticed a large number of their patients struggling in these areas, they sprang into action to find a solution.

Last month — after more than a year of research, planning and hard work — YHC opened Maggie’s Marketplace, a first-of-its-kind food pantry serving Michigan Medicine patients.

“If a person doesn’t have ready access to produce and other food, it can affect their health in a myriad of ways,” said Maggie A. Riley, M.D., assistant professor and medical director of the YHC. “By providing healthy food and recipes, we aim to improve the physical and mental health of our patients.”

‘This is something we have to address’

When Riley became the medical director of the YHC, she found a troubling trend among her patients.

“Patients would mention how difficult it is to focus on their medical issues when they don’t have enough to eat or enough to feed their children,” Riley said.

So she and her staff conducted a food insecurity survey of their patients, finding that 41.7 percent of YHC patients were concerned that food would run out before they could afford to buy more.

“That’s when we decided that this is something we have to address with an on-site resource,” Riley said.

She partnered with a group of invested pre-clinical U-M medical students from the Global Health and Disparities Path of Excellence, who helped research what it takes to have an onsite food pantry and initiated meetings with Food Gatherers as a community partner.

Riley and Ladele Cochran, administrative manager of YHC, worked to develop a budget and secure funding. Finally, a multi-disciplinary committee of YHC staff members identified and readied a physical space within the health center to house the pantry and created workflows on how patients could access the food.

And with that, Maggie’s Marketplace was born — with staff surprising Riley as the namesake for the first food pantry offered by a Michigan Medicine health center.

“Everyone worked so hard,” said Cochran. “And we couldn’t have done it without our partnership with Food Gatherers to learn about displaying healthy foods, proper storage, and refrigeration — things we hadn’t necessarily thought of at the beginning of the project.”

The pantry received two grants from within the organization to help it get off the ground, one from the Mott Administrative Fund and one from the Friends Gift Shop. Food Gatherers also provided a Healthy Pantry Grant to help with shelving, basket displays and refrigeration.

“It all came together because everyone in the organization and surrounding community helped make it come together,” Cochran said. “It was truly inspiring.”

An overwhelming response

On May 1, Maggie’s Marketplace opened its doors — and its impact on the community was felt immediately.

“A patient walked in with her 15-year-old daughter and shared that they had no food or money to feed their family,” Cochran said. “She was in tears when we showed her what we had to offer. She was able to get enough food to last for a week.”

The marketplace is run by YHC staff and carries fresh fruit and vegetables, along with basic staples such as potatoes, milk, cheese and eggs. All the food is purchased from Food Gatherers and given for free to patients or community members.

During its first week, Maggie’s Marketplace gave away 70 bags of food to 50 patients and 165 family members with whom they share a home. That number grew to 707 patients and family members during the first month of operation.

Why has the facility been so popular? Cochran thinks much of it has to do with removing the stigma of food insecurity.

“Going to a doctor’s office is much more private and relaxed than going to a traditional food pantry,” Cochran said. “We’re breaking down barriers and making it easier for people to ask for the food they need, often directly from health care providers and nutritionists who help them manage their diet. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

If you’d like to support Maggie’s Marketplace, contact Ladele Cochran at 734-544-3202 or Food donations should be made directly to Food Gatherers.