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06/17/2020 Admin

MSK’s FOOD Program Hits the Road

​Trips to the grocery store have become a daunting task for many as a result of COVID-19.

But for cancer patients who depend on food pantries, many of whom are elderly, immunocompromised, quarantined or afraid to leave their home, fear and uncertainty around accessing food and resources can create desperate situations.

"When patients don't have the resources or the capacity to isolate for several weeks, they need help," says Luke Paolantonio, Community Outreach Specialist for the Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities (IHCD) Service. "Toiletries, paper goods, and food are immediate needs. And if patients are told by their doctors that they can't leave the house, how do they live their life?"

Reaching our Patients

MSK's Food to Overcome Outcomes Disparities (FOOD) Program, managed by the IHCD Service, typically provides weekly donations of food to current or new patients (both MSK and non-MSK patients) at 12 of its food pantry locations, which include MSK and other hospitals such as Elmhurst Hospital, Queens Hospital Center, Kings County Hospital Center, Brooklyn Hospital Center, Lincoln Medical Center, Montefiore Medical Center, Jacobi Medical Center, and Coney Island Hospital.

When COVID-19 began to affect New York City, MSK implemented many changes to help patients continue to access resources onsite while still abiding by visitation and social distancing policies. The FOOD Program kept many of its food pantries open and adapted them to provide curbside pick-up. Still, the IHCD's Community Outreach Manager Julia Ramirez noted a sharp decline in patient attendance.

"Patients who normally came to the food pantries were instead staying home — fearful of exposure to the virus or unable to travel," says Ms. Ramirez. "Fortunately, many were still able to receive care through MSK's expanded telehealth visits, but they weren't able to pick up groceries from the food pantries."

A team was formed under the leadership of Rosanna Fahy, Senior Vice President of Hospital Operations, to arrange for MSK jitney drivers to be redeployed to deliver food to MSK patients at home.  

Paul Adamec, Transportation Manager in Ambulatory Care, developed a delivery schedule to quickly get much-needed groceries delivered to MSK's patients. The jitney drivers deliver food to MSK patients throughout NYC's five boroughs, as well as Long Island and New Jersey.

To supplement the deliveries made by MSK's Transportation team, Ms. Ramirez and IHCD staff, with the help of MSK's Development team, secured donations from Hello Fresh for 60 MSK patients over a period of six weeks, and connected patients with other resources, like the Get Food NYC Program

They also arranged for recurring FreshDirect deliveries to MSK locations, where members of the IHCD team package the groceries in preparation for jitney drivers to deliver them to patients.

Safely Delivered

Mr. Adamec recruited Jose Abreu, Luis Algarin, Eddy Nunez, and other drivers to participate in the program. Using GPS tracking software, they were able to create efficient delivery routes that optimized the number of deliveries per borough in the shortest amount of time.

Mr. Abreu, Transportation Supervisor, has spearheaded this effort: He creates the routes, assigns drivers, and communicates with the FOOD Program staff to ensure that all patients receive groceries. "I'm having fun with it. It's become our daily routine," says Mr. Abreu.

"At the height of COVID-19 fear and anxiety, our own heroes within the MSK transportation team came through and brought MSK's support to our patients' doorsteps," says Ms. Fahy.

The deliveries initially took place three times a week; now, the jitney team delivers food five days a week. A few facts about food deliveries:

  • Since April 6, MSK's jitney drivers have made more than 1,000 grocery deliveries to more than 150 MSK patients.
  • Each driver carries 15 bags of groceries per day, 75-80 bags per week.
  • In the first week, the drivers delivered approximately 50 bags of groceries to throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

Extending Support to Other Patients in Need

Food insecurity was a major problem for NYC residents long before COVID-19 hit. Prior to the pandemic, more than one million New Yorkers relied on soup kitchens or food pantries for food and basic supplies. But since the pandemic began, more than two million people have become food insecure, according to the Food Bank for New York City.

These statistics meant that there were also many non-MSK patients in need who could not travel to the usual food pantry sites at participating hospitals. In addition, these patients were missing out on the other services the IHCD Service offers at the food pantries, including case management, financial or medical resources, interpreters and more.

Building on the knowledge and know-how from securing grocery deliveries for MSK patients, Mr. Paolantonio and his colleagues expanded their efforts. They now pack and deliver food – while wearing masks and gloves – to more than 250 non-MSK patients who participate in the FOOD Program.

Reflecting on the experience, Mr. Paolantonio recalls one patient who told him that before receiving the groceries, she had no idea how she was going to survive the following week as there was no food left in her cupboards.

"It's scary to think what would happen if we weren't there. We made a commitment to deliver to everyone, and we are not turning anyone away," he adds.

To further assist with deliveries to non-MSK patients, the IHCD team recruited taxi drivers from the Taxi Network, another MSK community service effort that addresses the health needs of NYC taxi drivers. Ms. Ramirez says that many of the drivers were recently laid off as a result of COVID-19 and appreciate the chance to work. IHCD staff, with the help of the taxi drivers, have made more than 1,200 deliveries to more than 250 non-MSK patients.

In the meantime, many more MSK patients are being referred to the new delivery program with the help of MSK's Social Work and Food and Nutrition teams. The IHCD Service and MSK Transportation hope to continue these services for as long as possible.

"COVID-19 has disproportionately affected underserved communities," says Francesca Gany, Chief of the IHCD Service. "The FOOD Program is helping to ensure that our most vulnerable cancer patients have their most basic human needs met during this health crisis. "

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