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Commitment to patient care goes well beyond the clinic walls for Dr. Colin Orr and Dr. Christian Lawrence. Their passion to make a difference for the children and families they serve, and the staggering reality that many of these families are food insecure, led these two physicians to create a food pantry – the first at UNC Hospitals. UNC Children’s Hospital is committed to excellence in patient care for children and families in North Carolina and beyond. For Dr. Colin Orr, National Research Service Award fellow in general pediatrics, and Dr. Christian Lawrence, third-year resident, it is the team approach to support the state’s most vulnerable children that sets UNC Children’s apart from its peers.

Dr. Orr came to UNC Children’s two years ago from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to continue research on the social determinants that affect the health and growth of children. He soon connected with pediatric resident Dr. Christian Lawrence, a graduate of UNC School of Medicine. Thinking about the patients at UNC Children’s, Dr. Lawrence wondered if they were screening patients and their families for food insecurity—whether they had continual access to food and nutrition to help them get well and stay well. This type of screening was right in line with Dr. Orr’s research interests and expertise. Soon after Dr. Lawrence and his colleagues put the screening into place, they knew the next step would be to develop a way to support those families who were experiencing food insecurity. As Dr. Lawrence puts it, “The driving force behind this initiative is to have a positive impact on the most vulnerable patients and families we serve. It was only worth it for us to have the data if we could make a difference.”

The food pantry at UNC Children’s Primary Care Clinic on East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.
The food pantry at UNC Children’s Primary Care Clinic on East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill

Drs. Lawrence and Orr, community outreach specialist Darragh Davis and other residents worked with Drs. Martha Perry and Michael Steiner to establish a food pantry in the UNC Children’s Hospital. The team knew from both research and experience that small changes, like providing food to take home and a grocery store gift card to be used down the road, have big impacts on the day-to-day lives of the children and families UNC Children’s serves.

The food pantry began serving families in September 2016, operating out of a closet in the Department of Pediatrics. In the pantry’s first year, they found that 15% of the families they served were food insecure—a number that Dr. Lawrence feels underrepresents the true need due to the social stigma associated with not being able to feed one’s family. The pantry recently received a $10,000 grant from Carolina for the Kids. With this funding, the food pantry now provides grocery store gift cards to families screened as food insecure, enabling those in need to purchase fresh, healthy food. Currently, in less than two months, Dr. Lawrence and his colleagues have distributed grocery store gift cards to approximately 50 families.

Drs. Lawrence and Orr have brought together the research and clinical perspectives on social determinants of health to improve health outcomes for North Carolina’s most vulnerable children. Dr. Lawrence pursued pediatrics because of the opportunity to offer support and interventions outside of the medical scope that can improve the health of a child. Dr. Orr’s research is driven by his belief that our society should support families and children going through hardships—hardships that have negative impacts well beyond childhood. Through the food pantry, they are providing support for these families while also learning more about the needs of the patients UNC Children’s serves.

Dr. Orr’s fellowship will end in about one year. As he moves to the next phase of his career, he is giving a lot of thought to how research can influence advocacy efforts. Dr. Lawrence will be a Chief Resident at UNC Hospitals in 2019-2020. In the meantime, he is working to expand the impact of the food pantry, with a goal of bringing the initiative to all UNC Hospitals departments.

If you are interested in supporting the important work of the food pantry and providing food to those who need it most in our state, please contact UNC Children’s Office of External Affairs at 919-843-4155.

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