Food Banking is a hot topic. Food distribution is at an all-time high, and 1 in 6 Americans accesses food from food banks on a regular basis. If Food Banks are providing dietary basics (not just an emergency meal at the end of the month), there needs to be a reinvention of the types of foods that are available for food insecure populations. Additionally, there needs to be an investment cooking and nutrition literacy for both the clients accessing the food and for the organizations that provide this access by hosting food pantries.
Many people are surprised to see junk food, soda and baby formula in food bank warehouses. Earlier this year, I saw cases and cases of Jet-Puff Marshmellow product on the shop floor of a California food bank. What gives? In a nutshell, most of the food distributed is purchased by the Food Banks and not donated by individuals through food drives. Companies who sell foods (at discounted rates in exchange for tax breaks) to food banks are not always companies that produce the wholesome, nutrient-dense foods underserved populations so desperately need. Or if they do sell wholesome food, it’s often only part of a shipment that includes products with tons of added sugar, salt, and preservatives.
In addition to the challenge of choosing healthier nonperishables, food banks measure their impact in the number of pounds they distribute. Which is heavier – a bunch of kale or a can of soda? Spinach or baby formula? Donors, foundations, and federal grants respond to big numbers. There is certainly a movement to consider the nutritional quality of foods being delivered, but at this point the work is inadequate. Change is slow, and there are some other tough obstacles to overcome besides current procurement methods and the misguided expectations of funders.
For one, offering more produce is expensive and requires a lot of planning and coordination. Nonperishable goods are easier to store, easier to transport, and easier to move to agencies who host food pantries. Perishable goods require refrigeration, careful packaging, and swift distribution. They also require that the served population knows how to store and prepare these foods, and that they have a desire to eat them.
Of course, that last sentence is where we come in – and our work with the San Francisco Food Bank and Feeding America San Diego has shown the potential for impact in this area. In San Francisco, we are well underway with an ambitious 19-month grant through the USDA to canvas CalFresh (SNAP, or food stamp) clients with nutrition education. The response to our invitation is extraordinary. In June and July of this year, we are beginning almost 30 separate Food Smarts workshop series. Direct impact will be almost 500 individuals, indirect will be much more – 500 families – in the span of 8 weeks. Tremendous!
But we are a part of something even more exciting in San Diego. We have formed a collaborative with Feeding America San Diego and SuperFood Drive to create and execute a holistic model for change. SuperFood Partners will engage a wide variety of agencies to rise to the challenge of providing not only food but health to their clients. In addition to offering healthier foods through their pantries, they will be given infrastructure support to ensure they can safely keep and distribute these foods to their clients. They will commit on an organizational level to become competent at delivering nutrition education and cooking skills along with their food donations. They will achieve this through attendance at one of our training programs, or by hosting our workshops for their clients. They will also have access to a powerful toolkit – set up on a monthly delivery system – to transform their agency into a SuperFood Partner and keep the momentum going. This toolkit includes simple, seasonal recipes that incorporate food bank foods and nutrition messaging for their clients. Quarterly meetings, site visits, and ongoing training ensure this designation retains its meaning. Consider it a type of certification program that tells donors and community members that this agency is a place where health and wellness is a priority.
As a collaborative, we believe that the solution to chronic disease in underserved populations needs to transcend both the traditional anti-hunger platform (more food!) and the universal public health message (more veggies!). For better or for worse, American food banks have become a central food access point for many Americans. They also need to lead the charge in preventative healthcare.