September 27, 2017

5 ways food banks and local nonprofits act as community health care organizations

September is Hunger Action Awareness Month; learn how local organizations are meeting their communities' wellness needs

Happy taste-testers attend a healthy recipe demonstration at one of the food bank’s Family Markets. Photo courtesy of Capital Area Food Bank

Food banks provide an essential service to the more than 12 percent of households in the country suffering from food insecurity, bringing affordable and often free food to those who either can’t afford or can’t access it otherwise. But access to food isn’t the same thing as access to healthy food. Households in need, especially those in food swamps and food deserts where grocery stores are sparse, are often forced to choose between spending more to access healthy food or buying junk food on the cheap. As a result, many suffer from mounting health care costs and illness. The relationship between wealth and health is well-documented.

Last year, the New York Times told the story of Lola Latham, who is one of the millions forced to choose between health and hunger. The 56 year old full-time technician at the Harris County Health Department was “just scraping by,” going without food for days at a time. When she and her daughter eventually turned to the Houston Food Bank, Latham learned that her blood sugar was abnormally high.

Many food banks across the country have mobilized to ensure that health is an essential consideration in their work. From simple solutions, like phasing out junk food from food bank offerings, to psychological trickery meant to “nudge” consumers toward healthier alternatives, food banks are starting to explicitly address health as a factor in food inequity and food access.

Eliminating junk food

A 2014 survey of food banks found that high blood pressure and diabetes were present at alarming rates in households served by food banks. One obvious solution is to reduce access to unhealthy foods and increase the availability of nutrient-rich foods that would contribute to a balanced diet. That’s exactly what D.C.-based Capital Area Food Bank, one of the largest food equity organizations in the country, is doing.

One year ago, Capital Area Food Bank stopped accepting junk foods, such as candy, soda, and chips, from donors. Now, it supplies 84 percent less junk food to its nonprofit partners. “We are providing food on a regular basis to a low-income community, and we have a moral obligation that it be good food that’s not aggravating their (health) problems,” Nancy Roman, president of the Capital Area Food Bank, told Civil Eats.

“Nudging” people to choose healthier options

Some food banks have taken a page directly from the grocery store playbook. Supermarkets often sell discounted items, magazines, and candy at the checkout line, encouraging impulse buys from customers in line. A 2016 report by Feeding America and Cornell University explored whether this tactic could be scaled up, and used to encourage healthy purchasing choices. By using “cues in the environment that can influence the decisions individuals make about their food,” consumers can be “nudged” into healthier choices.

Sharing Life Community Outreach, in Mesquite, Texas, is experimenting with this tactic. For example, the food bank places whole wheat pasta on a prominent location on its shelves, alongside signs that explain the health benefits of whole wheat. As a result, Sharing Life saw a 46 percent increase in people taking home the highlighted healthy items. “Our goal is to try to educate people and not just shove a package of whole wheat spaghetti in their car and say, ‘try to deal with this,'” Teresa Jackson, the executive director of Sharing Life, told NPR. “We know it tastes different. We want them to understand why we want them to take this product.”

Bringing healthy food to those in need

For those living in food deserts or food swamps, access to healthy food is virtually nonexistent. That’s where D.C.’s Arcadia Mobile Market steps in—or rather, rolls in. Arcadia is a farmers market that operates out of a painted-green school bus. Items sold at the market range from greens and produce to local meat and dairy.

This market season has been a busy one for Arcadia. Every week, the market visits 13 locations across D.C., eight of which serve the district’s worst food deserts. The bus targets locations where its services are most needed, basing its route on “where stores and other farmers markets operate, the density of homes enrolled in SNAP, median income and anchor sites that might be willing to host the market and assist with outreach,” according to The Washington Post.

Recovering wasted produce

Food waste is a huge problem in this country: roughly 50 percent of produce—or 60 million tons—is thrown out. But plenty of fresh produce, en route to customers across North America, is thrown away at the U.S.-Mexico border, long before it gets to the consumer. Produce is rejected for a number of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the safety of the produce: for example, tomatoes can be thrown away if they are too ripe to make the trip to their eventual retailer.

“We are crazy,” said Yolanda Soto, president of Borderlands Food Bank. “The waste is enormous, and it’s just not right,” she told NPR. Soto has developed relationships with local produce distributors and national organizations to help recover some of the safe fruits and vegetables discarded at the border. Now, before dumping, distributors at the border contact Borderlands. From there, Soto can either connect the distributors to other food relief organizations, or, if the produce is too ripe to travel, can distribute the food locally.

Adapting to people’s habits

Before 2013, public school students in Wayne County, New York were served whole apples from Washington at lunch. However, the students would frequently throw out the apples. The problem wasn’t with the apples themselves. Children, it turns out, more readily eat apple slices than uncut, whole apples.

Tom Ferraro, founder of the Foodlink food bank, recognized the problem, and saw an easy and economically feasible solution. Foodlink had the facilities to wash and slice apples. Moreover, Wayne County produces more apples than any other county in New York—so why should students get their apples from Washington? By purchasing apples from local farmers, slicing them at Foodlink, and delivering them to public schools, Ferraro increased apple consumption among the student population, and invested in local farmers.

“It’s outside the realm of what most people think of when they think of a food bank,” Julia Tedesco, Foodlink’s executive director, told NPR. But it “nourish[es] this community by nourishing the economy and the individuals in it.”

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.