It’s a commonly known fact that a hospital stay can be expensive for families. The cost of parking, time off work, and travelling, just to name a few items, all quickly add up. The cost of food that family members or caregivers must buy while staying with their admitted child can be one of the largest, and inaccessible, cost that families face. As part of IWK Health’s Pediatric Resident group’s annual advocacy project, Doctors Katie Girgulis and Henry Annan aimed to confront food insecurity experienced by IWK patient families and start one of the few in-house meal programs in Canada.
In late 2019, as the groups Canadian Pediatric Society’s representatives, Girgulis and Annan began the work of bringing an accessible, low-barrier-of-entry, program to families on the Pediatric Medical Unit (PMU) of IWK Health. While other programs had some form of criteria to meet and long wait times to be approved, in addition to the stigma of asking for help, the IWK residences wanted to make it as simple as possible for every family on PMU to have a meal whenever it is needed.
“Many of our colleagues were aware of this issue,” says Girgulis. “Across the country, when we’re looking at general pediatric units, we found that 55 percent didn’t have any programs in place for covering meals for families. We heard stories from our own residence of families being admitted and the nurses noting that the parents hadn’t eaten for multiple days. It was heartbreaking.”
Upon researching, the group found that 18 percent of families being admitted to the IWK PMU faced some form of food insecurity. Over 50 percent of those families did not meet the criteria or were not able to apply, for other sources of funding to assist them during their hospital stay, leaving them to skip meals and not able to provide for themselves while caring for their sick child.
In collaborating with PMU nurses and social worker Melanie Robitaille, the meal card program was created in November of 2020. Upon admission to the PMU, nurses inform families of the following: “We recognized that some families of children admitted to the PMU may need help accessing food. If at any point you would like more information about accessing it, please let us know.” If food insecurity is noticed in any way, staff members are empowered to give further information about the meal card program and provide cards on the spot.
Funding for the meal card pilot program came from the IWK Auxiliary. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group was forced to halt many of their regular fundraising ventures but Auxiliary member, Kelly Cameron, says that the purpose of the IWK Auxiliary has remained; to provide supports to IWK families. The absence of regular budget items allowed the Auxiliary to fund the meal card pilot project while fulfilling its mandate during the pandemic.
“Our Auxiliary members feel very excited that we’re still able to help in some way,” says IWK Auxiliary member, Kelly Cameron. “We’re really proud of the residents who came up with this project. For people who are as busy as pediatric residents, to be able to create something like this is really incredible.”
The PMU meal card pilot program saw huge success after eleven months of activity. As of September 2021, Girgulis and resident co-lead, Dr. Alexis Fong-Leboeuf are now assessing the progress and searching for ways that the program can be sustained for the long term.