Debra Levin headshotThe American Hospital Association’s Committee on Performance Improvement prioritizes population health as a must-do strategy for hospitals and health systems if they are to succeed in a dynamic and changing care environment. Often these efforts include nontraditional programs and efforts outside of the conventional hospital setting to educate the general public, especially vulnerable patient populations, and support community health and wellness needs.

During The Center for Health Design’s Built Environment Network (BEN) annual summer meeting, hosted by Boston Medical Center (BMC), members were able to hear firsthand the successful efforts BMC has made over the years to positively impact the health and well-being of its community. BMC is the largest safety-net hospital and Level 1 trauma center in New England and a longstanding BEN member. During the meeting, BMC shared insight into its work and how it’s pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic to push for even better outcomes at a time when the need was even greater.

In 2001, as part of its annual capital program, BMC launched the Nourishing Our Community effort as a way to provide access to nutritious food and educational programming. The organization’s three-pronged approach to combat food insecurity in its community includes:

• Growing fresh produce at a rooftop farm on the main hospital campus. The food is prescribed by physicians just as conventional medicine is, based on the unique needs of every patient including their family members. Each year, the BMC garden produces 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of vegetables.

• Providing culturally and nutritionally appropriate food from an on-site therapeutic food pantry located within the medical center. Each patient gets the supplies needed for five days of meals for a family, and patients work with pantry employees to gather the physician-prescribed ingredients and bag them as a way to take pride in the experience and separate it from a traditional community food bank. Also, the food is tracked and part of a person’s medical record.

• Offering culinary and nutrition education classes. These are taught virtually from a hospital-based teaching kitchen and made widely available online to help people maximize the benefits of the foods provided.

Because of the constraints brought on by COVID-19, BMC realized it needed to adapt its effort to continue to provide access to food and nutritional education and help combat the social isolation that resulted from pandemic-related safety and distancing precautions. It started a home delivery service in August 2020 to ensure the food would continue to get to patients. Serving more than 7,000 people a month, the program has been so successful that the organization plans to continue the virtual classes and food delivery, even after the pandemic subsides.

A unique feature is that the entire program is funded through philanthropy. Additionally, it falls under BMC’s capital building budget because the organization sees it as an extension of its facilities department. It’s this kind of outside-the-box thinking —looking at community health initiatives under the umbrella of facilities, design, and construction—that can bring design professionals into the larger conversation around population health and help them to share such examples with their clients.

Creating holistic solutions where built environments couple with community programs to reach more people where they live will help to create the best possible health outcomes for both individuals and communities.

Debra Levin is president and CEO of The Center for Health Design. She can be reached at