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Boxing up support: Penn State Health, community partners offer food to patients in need

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Self-isolation to stop the spread of COVID-19 can be stressful enough without adding the worry of having adequate food.

Penn State Health, Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and the Caring Cupboard food pantry of Palmyra are teaming up to provide relief in the form of food boxes at Hershey Medical Center’s drive-through COVID-19 testing site and to people at home in isolation.

“We’re really glad to be able to help people at a scary, chaotic time. It’s nice to be able to offer them some peace of mind,” said Ashley Visco, Penn State Health community health director.

Previous collaborations around healthy food assistance built community trust that’s aiding in the current effort, said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. “It’s a really great example of collaboration in a time of crisis, and a version of it could extend past this crisis because many of these people may still be needing food,” he said.

“This is an opportunity to do something that’s good and valuable within our community,” agreed Shila Ulrich, executive director of the Caring Cupboard.

Before people are swabbed at the testing site, they are asked if they are worried about running out of food during isolation. If yes, a box containing 25 meals provided by Central Pennsylvania Food Bank is placed in their vehicle as they exit.

“People have been really appreciative – even people not needing food have been thankful that we’re asking,” said Visco, who estimated 20% of people getting tested have needed food boxes.

Beyond that, Penn State College of Medicine students are screening individuals quarantined with COVID-19 to see if they have access to enough food while in isolation. If not, they are referred to the Caring Cupboard for home delivery of food boxes for three weeks.

“The effort is helping to fight virus spread and shaping future top-notch physicians,” said Dr. Susan Borys.

“The students have been advocating for so many patients and families, not only for their health needs but for their total well-being. They are tenacious and determined to find a way to help,” she said. “It’s an incredibly positive program to come out of this dire health crisis.”

Students and faculty have taken their concern one step farther by working with the Development Office to establish Families in Need COVID Relief, a community giving effort to cover the cost of food boxes for people affected by COVID-19.

The quick response was made possible by the longstanding history of working together, said Tammi Garner, development officer at Hershey Medical Center. “It’s a wonderful example of a project that brings out the hero in all of us – our health system, our students, our community partners and anyone who donates to the cause,” she said.

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