Gateway Food Pantry provides meals and hope to those in need

Several of the people who have helped make the Gateway Food Pantry an important service to the community. From left: Roberto Morales, Oscar Velasco Gonzalez, Betty Brown and Sonya Kauffman Smith.

“Are you in need of food today?” is not often a phrase you hear when visiting your doctor. But at Providence Gateway Family Medicine, it's an important one.

Before the Gateway Food Pantry opened at Providence Gateway Family Medicine and Internal Medicine clinics, organizers knew there was an urgent need among the communities they served for access to immediate food resources. But they didn’t quite know how many people they would actually serve in the first year. Thousands, it turns out.

Patient screenings for vital social needs like food, housing, transportation and utilities showed food insecurity was the most common issue facing patients. The Gateway Food Pantry has proven to be a valuable resource, with more and more people in immediate need of food for themselves and their families since the program launched in 2022.

“When a patient screens positive for food insecurity, we can provide them with immediate support,” says Oscar Velasco Gonzalez, program manager.

A patient’s gratitude

Deborah Murphy, M.D., has worked at Gateway Family Medicine for 12 years. Unsure at first how the food pantry would work in a clinical setting, she soon saw how the benefits ripple through her interactions with patients.

“Knowing about my patient’s social needs allows me to better prioritize how I spend my appointment time with them,” says Dr. Murphy. 

In one instance, a young mother was filling out a food pantry grocery list when Dr. Murphy entered the exam room. Dr. Murphy noticed tears streaming down the patient’s cheek, while her children moved around the room. The patient shared her immense gratitude for taking food home that day, while also having a safe space to share the urgent needs of her family. 

Without the important screening questions being presented in a stigma-free environment, the patient may not have felt comfortable sharing her situation. 

“It allowed us to help her prioritize her medical needs, as well and address them – without seeing and understanding that her basic needs were not met, we would have been out of touch and unable to begin to make change on her medical needs,” says Dr. Murphy. 

By the numbers

In the pantry’s first 14 months, more than 24,000 meals were distributed to 798 households, more than half with children present in the household.  

Providing food for people who are hungry has a ripple effect on their lives. Betty Brown, executive director of Portland Open Bible Community Pantry, says food supports not just physical health, but behavioral health, as well.

It’s hard to focus when you’re hungry. Knowing you have food for your next meal decreases anxiety and tension, Betty says, and gives people relief from one very important part of their lives, if even for just a short period of time.

“That’s why what Providence caregivers are doing is amazing,” Betty says of the Gateway pantry. “It has resulted in the stability of so many families that come here.”

Working together

The pantry is stocked by Portland Open Bible Community Pantry, part of the Oregon Food Bank Network. Providence partners with Impact Northwest, a nonprofit social services agency in Portland, to staff the Community Resource Desk (CRD) program, and CRD resource specialists facilitate food pantry visits.

Roberto Morales is one of those resource specialists. He recalls a young woman, who had been going to the clinic her whole life as a patient, but had no idea about the pantry.

When the screening showed she needed food, the woman was overwhelmed to receive that kind of support from her medical clinic. The pantry provides three days’ worth of food for each patient and their entire household.

“These are my community members, these are people in my neighborhood, so I think it’s just great this resource is here,” says Roberto.

Roberto also sees how this program removes potential barriers for patients who may not want to ask for help. When they realize support is available and there is no judgement toward them, those patients may be more willing to accept help from other community resources, providing another positive ripple effect from the pantry.

Going forward

The Gateway Food Pantry is a two-year pilot program. Year one was funded by two external grants and year two was funded by Providence community benefit funds.

Gateway was chosen as the pilot site as social determinants of health screening data showed it was the clinic with the highest volume of patients screening positive for food insecurity and there was a CRD already established in this location.

“Good food can help overall health,” says Betty, with Portland Open Bible Community Pantry. “There’s so many positive things about this.”