National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Hospital food pantry offers prescription for hunger


By Christopher Johnson


An apple a day keeps the doctor away, or so the saying goes. Now, Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in Minnesota has a new prescription: Take two bags of groceries and call me in the morning.

The county-owned hospital has launched a Therapeutic Food Pharmacy to better serve patients identified through its clinics as “food-insecure.” The USDA defines food security as access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.

“Seeing children and their families go hungry is preventable,” said Linda Carson, who coordinates the hospital’s program. “We make sure to keep an eye out for signs that a family needs food.”

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Watch a PowerPoint presentation  on the Therapeutic Food Pharmacy.

The pharmacy dispenses only healthful foods to low-income patients referred by doctors at the hospital’s clinics and is funded by grants and donations provided to the hospital and county. The program differs from other food pantry models. Instead of having kids and their families shop at a pantry like a grocery store, the clinic provides pre-packed bags with foods that meet nutritional standards. Families are not restricted as to how many times they can receive food from the pharmacy and are also are free to go to other food pantries.

HCMC’s food pharmacy was launched in May 2009 with the support of Second Harvest Heartland’s food bank and the surrounding community. It’s believed to be the only food pantry inside a county hospital.



Photo Courtesy of Linda Carson

A staff member looks on as Eugenia Aicacer (r) gives her 15-month-old son Luis Alex a dried cherry to try after receiving it at the Hennepin County Medical Center’s Therapeutic Food Pharmacy.

Starting with the hospital’s pediatric clinic, the food pharmacy gradually expanded its services based on recommendations by medical staff about which populations were most at-risk. It grew out of a clinic project that focused on encouraging families to incorporate canned fruits and vegetables into their diet — no easy task where some immigrant populations are concerned.


“Many people who are from outside the U.S. are wary of canned goods due to the fact they lived in an area what they were warned against them,” Carson added. “Fresh food was the norm year-round so it takes some getting used to.”

Program costs vary with availability of donated foods but range between $3.50 and $5 per household, and the pharmacy serves between 1,200 and 2,000 families a month. So far in 2012, the food pharmacy has distributed 4,000–10,000 pounds of food in pre-sorted bags to about 61 families per week.

The program also features a demonstration kitchen where those visiting the pharmacy can learn how to cook healthy foods and control portion sizes.

“The program has enhanced access to healthful foods among low-income families, generated high levels of satisfaction among them and improved the diet and overall health of those served,” said Joni Geppert, registered dietitian and research evaluator, department of pediatrics, Hennepin County Medical Center.​