Food Banks Shift Focus, Seek to Nourish People in Need

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Food bank volunteers help get fresh produce to people quickly. Photo: Courtesy Alameda County Community Food Bank
Food bank volunteers help get produce to people quickly. Photo: Courtesy Alameda County Community Food Bank

It's not enough to simply feed the hungry. Given the obesity epidemic and other diet-related illnesses, hunger-relief organizations like the Alameda County Community Food Bank are seeking ways to make sure those calories count. They want their clients to have nutrient-dense foods -- including fresh produce -- that will fuel their bodies, not simply stave off the rumblings of an empty stomach.

That mission is clear the minute you enter the ACCFB's vast warehouse. Last Friday, one of the busiest days of the year for the local food bank, Corey Garmon, a nutrition education intern, was positioned at the entrance handing out samples of his sweet potato hash -- made from scratch with a little heat and a lot of heart -- using fresh produce available to food pantry members dashing in for their pre-Thanksgiving pick ups. Those paper cups of comfort food (a simple mix of onions, bell peppers, and bright orange tuber cubes seasoned with red pepper flakes) added a sweet note of tasty cheer on a dreary, cold day. They got snapped right up.

Meanwhile, warehouse workers deftly moved heavy pallets of chicken stock, cranberry sauce, and turkey stuffing in a flurry of activity, while other employees handed out boxes of turkey breasts and volunteers bagged a mountain of carrots.

ACCFB is considered a national leader in efforts to ensure that the neediest receive nourishment. Back in 2005 -- well before the recent soda tax campaigns -- the food bank banned carbonated drinks from its warehouse shelves. It's been making strides to offer more healthy options ever since.

Now, as the biggest eating holiday of the year looms, comes word about the results of an initiative designed to improve the quality of edible offerings in food banks nationwide. ACCFB is one of 12 food banks around the country participating in a program dubbed Healthy Options, Healthy Meals, in collaboration with the nonprofit MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, health care giant Kaiser Permanente, and the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Weight & Health. The program, in place for two years, provides financial and other support to food banks who want to develop and implement formal nutrition policies.


That is not as splashy news as, say, the end of the Twinkie. But it's significant in the food banking world. It may come as a surprise to learn that food banks typically don't have nutritional guidelines in place -- even the ACCFB's soda ban isn't part of a formal written policy. That's because, in part, most people in the anti-hunger world are too busy trying to meet a growing need, and have had scant time for mulling over policy matters.

So taking small steps to assess what constitutes healthy food for clients is a big shift in food bank circles, say leaders in the fight against hunger, malnutrition, and obesity. "These food banks are setting a new standard within the food banking community, paving the way for their peers to be more proactive," says Marla Feldman, director of the initiative at MAZON. "Formal, documented nutrition policies provide a concrete blueprint for how food providers can increase the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages they distribute."

The CHOP system is a quick reference for food pantry members choosing products for their clients. Photo: Courtesy ACCFB
CHOP offers a quick reference for pantry members choosing food for their clients. Photo: Courtesy ACCFB

Here's how the initiative's work has played out in practice at the food bank: The organization, which has two nutritionists on staff, implemented a system on the warehouse floor known as the Choosing Healthy Options Program or CHOP for short -- a simple traffic-light grading of goods (green represents healthy choices recommended any time, yellow foods are sometimes options, and red items, heavy on sugar, salt, and/or fats are rare treats.) In addition, notices like the one below are posted throughout the warehouse offering suggestions for more nutritious eating.

Foodbank - Rice

Food pantries served by ACCFB are also experimenting with a new distribution method known as client choice in place of a pre-packed bag of staples. Client choice recognizes the diverse range of dietary needs in a community, whether due to culture, religion, health preferences, or medical concerns. Tofu may be an everyday food for one family, while peanut butter more appropriate for another. Food bank staffers say that client choice decreases waste and increase dignity for clients -- and volunteers enjoy the extra interaction they have with the people they’re helping. At the Oakland Food Pantry -- located in a former liquor store in West Oakland -- clients appreciate the chance to "go shopping" for fresh foods and kitchen staples in a so-called food desert. "Offering vegetables and fruits has made a big difference in the way people choose what they take home," pantry executive director Greg Harland reports in an ACCFB newsletter. "At first, people didn't grab broccoli, but now it's all gone at the end of the day. With availability comes change."

Food bank clients at the Oakland Food Pantry report a preference for choosing the types of produce they take home to cook. Photo: ACCFB
Clients at the Oakland Food Pantry report a preference for choosing the produce they take home. Photo: ACCFB

And the ACCFB now has a mobile produce hub program delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to small and medium-sized member agencies, saving them the trek out to the food bank's warehouse near Oakland airport. These pop-up produce events take place in parking lots in Oakland, Berkeley, and Hayward and they save smaller agencies time and money. Most importantly, people they serve are now able to enjoy a lot more farm fresh strawberries and oranges.

The food bank is also in the early stages of developing formal, written nutritional guidelines and, as part of that process, is evaluating the contents of all the cans, boxes, and containers of products that are either donated or purchased for distribution to people in need, according to Justine Kaplan, the food bank's director of food, agency, and nutrition services. This time-consuming process will likely have implications for purchasing decisions down the track, adds Kaplan, who notes that 60 percent of the food banks' offerings are procured.


Such practices shift the focus from quantity to quality.

"The real opportunity here is to get beyond a pounds in/pounds out approach to food banking, and to take a careful look at the nutritional value of food on the shelves," says Loel Solomon, vice president for community health at Kaiser Permanente. "Every family deserves access to healthy food, and that’s especially important for low-income people who are more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease and obesity."