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Hungry patients get both food and medicine at rural Maine health center

Staff members remember the day a patient came in for a dental appointment; he was extraordinarily agitated. When they asked him if he was worried about the dental work, he explained that he thought his hunger might put him at risk for excessive bleeding. 

“I haven’t been able to eat in five days.” 

Had he avoided eating because of tooth pain? No, the man simply had no food. 

The incident helped to spur a host of changes and a new emphasis on nutrition at Fish River Rural Health in Eagle Lake, Maine. 

Nurses screening for social and economic determinants of health repeatedly found that although food was available, patients were unable to get to it. “I could give you story after story,” said Heather Pelletier, the health center’s CEO. 

Some patients are impoverished, and many did not have cars. There is no public transportation in the area. A local church ran a food bank that offered food but was only open one hour per month. 

Pelletier called a staff meeting and asked employees if they would be willing to take a payroll deduction to finance the beginnings of a health center food bank. The staff collectively committed to $200 monthly to get it started. Today it is about $800 per month. 

Fish River started publicizing the hunger problem and worked with local organizations such as Maine’s Good Shepherd Food Bank. In time, farmers started donating from their potato and blueberry harvests. Several local businesses contributed funds to help. 

The health center at first gave emergency food boxes to those in need, but now has an extensive program in place. Patients can make appointments for a food visit just as they would for any other service, and the center is giving out about 5,000 pounds of food monthly. Pelletier hopes the strides in nutrition will eventually do more than reduce hunger. “I’m looking for improved health outcomes.”