Access to healthy food is crucial to children's health, especially children with chronic health conditions.

Rachel Hendrickson, a social worker at the diabetes clinic at Primary Children's Hospital, said concerns about food often come up when she is talking with her patients throughout all 55 Primary Children's clinics. She said there are about 1,000 patients struggling with food each month.

In the past, those who work at the hospital have directed these families to resources, but often the families don't have the energy or may not be able to pay for gas to get to those resources.

Now, Primary Children's Hospital has its own facility to provide food for those who need it, and it is called Primary Pantry. Instead of giving families a referral, hospital workers can now give them the food they need right there, Hendrickson said.

She said there are options to help with specific allergies or dietary needs, and patients' families can also meet with a volunteer for resources near their house between appointments.

"We are so appreciative to have this resource and know that it can give some hope for these families and can hopefully ease the burdens a little bit," she said.

Katy Welkie, CEO of Primary Children's Hospital, thanked many partners who have enabled the hospital to create the pantry and make a dream into a reality.

"I am incredibly excited that we now have this offering for our patients and families. We know that we're going to be able to help children today and long into the future. And it will make them healthier, happier children," Welkie said.

She said 1 of every 9 children in Utah does not have consistent healthy food available and deals with food insecurity. Welkie said many of those children visit the hospital's facilities regularly.

Welkie said food insecurity leads to chronic health conditions, patients not taking medications, diabetes patients going without food, longer and more frequent hospitalizations and a higher probability of mental health issues.

"Food insecurity has a really important impact and significant impact on our overall health. But there is hope. There's hope right here today," she said.

Jessica Strong, Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital community health director, shows the new Primary Pantry, where patients can get free food.
Jessica Strong, Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital community health director, shows the new Primary Pantry, where patients can get free food. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Welkie said the pantry is in a private but accessible place in the outpatient building that thousands of families come to each year for care. A second Primary Pantry will be located at the Lehi Primary Children's Hospital when it opens in 2024.

The pantry is part of the "primary promise" commitment by Primary Children's Hospital to build a model health system for children. Welkie said an important part of that promise is addressing health needs, like hunger.

Carolyn Reynolds, executive clinical director of pediatric community-based care for Intermountain Health, said she works with family doctors and other caregivers to support patients, and often they are the first to identify a need for food in a home. She said these doctors are grateful to have a resource to refer families to that is right at the hospital.

Reynolds said nutrition is the leading cause of illness, and illnesses related to food insecurity cause over 600,000 deaths each year.

"That's just heartbreaking. We want to be able to disrupt that, we want to change that. All children and families should have access to healthy foods. The Primary Pantry is a great new resource to help people become healthier and be able to grow and these children to be able to reach their potential," she said.

This is just one of many initiatives from Intermountain Health to address social determinants affecting health, like ability to work and access to food and housing. Reynolds said they work with community partners and have created community gardens — but this new pantry will specifically aid patients with chronic health needs.

"We're hopeful that we can really impact their long-term health and well-being through giving them access to the food that they need," Reynolds said.

She said at the pantry families are given three days worth of food for each member of their family, along with information about resources in their neighborhood.