Ben Slocum’s Hunger to Help Others

Among medical students, it’s known as “the last summer;” that is, the summer in between the first and second years of medical school.

“It’s the last summer vacation you have before preparing for board exams, before the real craziness begins,” explained Ben Slocum, a third-year medical student in UNE’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, who, at present, is newly entrenched in his rotations at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

While some medical students may chose to enjoy their “last summer” by taking it easy, Slocum, who says he has a deep interest in community health, tenaciously sought out a public health project. The result—a cooking guide aimed at teaching others how to stretch their grocery dollars while keeping meals healthy and easy to prepare. 30 Days on $200—A Cooking Guide for Good and Healthy Eating on a Budget was conceived when Slocum, after repeated attempts to contact her by phone, showed up in-person at the office of Vicky Edgerly, the director of Health and Human Services for the City of Biddeford. Edgerly was eager to talk and very receptive to Slocum’s desire to help. When he inquired about Biddeford’s biggest health problem, he was surprised to learn that hunger is one of the most troubling issues facing Biddeford residents.

Slocum interviewed several managers of local food pantries and soup kitchens, who all reported the same dilemma: low-income residents’ food assistance funds were not lasting them through the month. Based on his conversations with Edgerly and pantry managers, Slocum suspected that the root of the problem was a lack of public education on how best to utilize the resources available—both the financial assistance and the pantry donations.

“Getting free food at a pantry isn’t all that helpful if you don’t know how to prepare it,” said Slocum, who recalled a story of a woman who inquired how to prepare the green beans that were being offered at a pantry. “When the pantry worker told her that she could steam them, she asked if she should do that with a clothes iron,” he said.

Slocum sought to find out if the standard amount of money allotted per person in state food assistance funds—$200 a month—could be stretched to provide a full month’s worth of nutritious food, and he found that it was, indeed, possible. “It’s not easy, he said. “But the key is organization.” With simple-to-read, image-based instruction, the book teaches the basics on how to budget, plan meals, make shopping lists, and prepare food. It assumes no prior cooking experience, and while anyone can benefit from the book regardless of income level, it makes a particular effort to demonstrate preparation for foods commonly acquired at food pantries.

When Edgerly informed Biddeford’s mayor, Alan Casavant, of Slocum’s project, he quickly got on board. “I acted as a facilitator of sorts, linking Ben’s efforts with the support of the city,” he explained. One facet of his role as facilitator was to seek sponsorship for the cooking guide.

Casavant approached Biddeford Hannaford’s store manager, Barrett Johnson, who, in turn, spoke with others at the chain’s headquarters in Scarborough, and Hannaford eagerly agreed to publish and distribute copies of the book throughout New England, wherever Hannaford has a presence. Hannaford spokesperson Eric Blom stated, “Ben’s resource guide excited us because it is such a good fit with our commitment to help people make healthy food choices and with our longstanding effort to provide local people who are at risk of going hungry with access to the nutritious food they need.”

The cooking guide is set to go to print soon and will become available in September, Hunger Awareness Month. According to Blom, Hannaford will print several thousand copies. He noted that “these books will be donated to organizations that work with low-income individuals, distributed by registered dieticians at Hannaford stores across the Northeast and provided to others who can help get them to people in our communities who are struggling to make ends meet.” The guide will also be viewable in pdf format on the city of Biddeford’s website: www.biddefordmaine.org

It is not just Hannaford that has recognized Slocum’s efforts to make a difference in the lives of those who struggle with the issue of food insecurity. Two days before he was to take his medical board exam, Slocum was unexpectedly asked by Casavant to attend a City Council meeting. To his surprise, representatives from Hannaford were present, as was Vicky Edgerly. The first item on the agenda was to honor Slocum for his work, and it was then that he learned he was being named the first recipient of the City of Biddeford University of New England Volunteer of the Year Award.

For years Casavant said that he had been aware that UNE students volunteered in a number of ways in Biddeford. But it wasn’t until he became mayor that he learned the full scope of UNE’s volunteerism. In fact, UNE students volunteer more than 10,000 hours of community service each year to more than 150 community agencies, organizations and schools. Casavant said that he “decided that it would be appropriate to develop an award, specifically for a UNE student volunteer, in order to demonstrate the city’s appreciation for that student’s efforts.”

“I chose Ben as the first recipient,” he stated, “because I was so floored by all that he did in that project. Thinking of his medical background and his care for people, I kept thinking through the entire process that he exemplified everything that I would want to see in a doctor…I continue to be so impressed by his character and his commitment.”

The award is not the only major honor that Slocum has achieved. He is a recipient of a Doctors for Maine's Future scholarship, a program established in 2009 to address Maine's acute shortage of primary care physicians and the high cost of medical education. The scholarship provides up to $25,000 annually for eligible Maine medical students.

Slocum says he is incredibly appreciative of receiving the scholarship, and cites many reasons why he would consider practicing in Maine after receiving his degree. “I grew up in Maine. I really like the people and the sense of community, and in Maine, as well as in a number of areas in New England, there are real health needs that have to be met.”

By spending last summer—his “last summer”—creating the cooking guide, Slocum has already begun meeting those needs.