Food Banks Are Working to Serve Healthier Food

The food available to food bank clients often has low nutritional value and high levels of sodium and "empty calories." But some food banks are working to change that.

The food available to food bank clients often has low nutritional value and high levels of sodium and “empty calories.” But some food banks are working to change that. Photo: Shutterstock

In a long-overdue moment of clarity, food security charities are starting to realize that poor people actually deserve to eat healthy food.

And in doing so, they are starting to quietly revolutionize food banks.

Probably since the beginning of food banks’ existence, these organizations have become a repository for well-meaning families’ unused canned goods and peanut butter, and day-old sheet cakes and other foods of questionable nutritional value from grocery stores.

While it could be argued that any food is better than no food at all, the fact of the matter is that the food provided by food banks is generally of lower nutritional value than the food eaten by more affluent families.

Feeding America, the national organization that represents most of the United States’ food banks, recently announced a plan to increase the nutritional value of food available at food pantries and other charities.

The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., is one of a number of Feeding America’s members that is not only committing to providing food but to teaching clients how to choose and cook nutritious foods.

“The old way was to collect cans and pass them out,” Nancy Roman, chief executive of CAFB, told The Washington Post. “Now we realize we have a moral imperative not only to provide food, but to provide food that helps prevent diseases.”

Roman said that her “a-ha” moment came after a 2015 study showed that almost 50 percent of the households it was serving included people with high blood pressure, and almost a quarter had a family member with heart disease.

As a result of the study’s findings, CAFB launched cooking classes and a mobile market that brings fresh produce to “food desert” neighborhoods, among other initiatives to teach clients about nutrition.

While CAFB and similarly situated food banks may have more resources available to pursue nutritional education and nutritious foods, small food banks still struggle to find fresh produce, meat, and dairy, and often lack the cool storage needed for perishable products.

Food banks also worry about upsetting corporate donors—some of the largest contributors to food banks are companies like Walmart, Kellogg’s, and Pepsi—by changing their “ask” to include healthier food.

But, said Roman, since consumers are asking these retailers to provide healthier products, she doesn’t see any reason food banks shouldn’t do the same.

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