July 17, 2017

How an organization that feeds the hungry is also tackling obesity and heart disease

D.C.'s Capital Area Food Bank serves its community by pairing healthy produce with knowledge

Parents pick out produce at one of the Capital Area Food Bank’s Family Markets, which provide free monthly fruits and vegetables in local schools. Photo courtesy of Capital Area Food Bank

One of the largest food banks in the country recently launched a wide-reaching food policy aimed at combating a scourge in its community: obesity and obesity-related illnesses. For the first time in its nearly 40-year history, the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves Washington, D.C., and surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia, announced last September that it would no longer accept sugary drinks and foods from area grocery store donors.

The organization, which assists 540,000 individuals every year, is treating food insecurity and health holistically. It’s doing that in multiple ways, including through the creation of its sugary drinks policy and by partnering with local grocery stores to offer healthy recipes that can feed families for as little as $8.

We spoke with CAFB president and CEO Nancy Roman earlier this year about how the food bank is meeting the needs of area families, and how large organizations like it can innovate in their communities. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

What’s the biggest challenge of running one of America’s largest food banks?

The challenge is always to stay ahead of the curve. In our case, it’s innovating quickly enough to fully realize the powerful link between food and diet-related health. We’ve been on that path and making great strides for years, but we really have the burden of knowledge that food connects very directly to diabetes, it connects very directly to heart disease, it connects very directly to obesity. Instead of this being a sideshow, it has to be the main show, and that’s what we’ve been working to do.

Our model is to take really good, healthy produce and pair it with knowledge that unlocks the potential of that food.

Some of our constraints are transportation constraints, because food is our tool. Our model is to take really good, healthy produce and pair it with knowledge that unlocks the potential of that food. It’s not how much vitamin K is in it, but what do you do with this purple thing? How long does it last? How do you store it? How can I fix it so it tastes good? Then over time people realize that purple thing is an eggplant. It tastes really great when you chop it and saute it with an onion and some tomato, and it’s low calorie but nutrient dense. And in this culture that’s what we need, foods that are nutrient dense. It’s exciting work, but we just have to keep innovating, keep improving the food supply, and keep finding ways to pair the knowledge with the food.

One of the ways you are doing that is through recipe cards, tell me about those.

The recipes cards are great. I don’t even think of them as recipes in every case, sometimes they’re just food assembly. The thing that’s really powerful, if you look in the right hand corner, it tells you how many people it serves and for how much. It always serves between four and eight people and it’s always between $4 and change, and $7 and change. That’s critical because it shatters this myth that the only way you can eat inexpensively is fast food. You can eat inexpensively food that can be quickly prepared, but you have to know what to do and you have to have access to those ingredients.

What was the turning point that led to CAFB’s decision to focus on health challenges like diabetes?

The Capital Area Food Bank has always been committed to healthy good food. That isn’t new. But a turning point for us came—I can certainly say a turning point for me personally came—when I was walking through the warehouse and we saw this unbelievable explosion of sheet cake. We recognized that it was a policy decision to limit snacks on any distribution, that led to a backup of these snacks in the warehouse. It was a sobering moment, but it was a good thing because it led us to engage with [the local grocery store chain] Shoppers Food Warehouse. They invited us out. We said, look you’re a terrific partner, we love you, we can’t function without you, but we’re getting too much sheet cake. They said, we’re on this. We don’t want to give you food you don’t want, we don’t want to overproduce sheet cake. That ended up being good for them in their business, and good for us in our food supply.

It’s critical that people understand that retailers have been really willing to help us move in a healthier direction. The old conventional wisdom used to be that that retailers would be a block to that but that has not been our experience.

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

What are some of your innovative partnerships?

Giant Foods, that’s a critical partnership. We asked them to model [for a new program] Retailers for Wellness. This is a way of gradually increasing the wellness of their donations to the food bank, which they’ve done. They’re giving us more meat, meat that’s not sold by their Best By date immediately goes into the deep freezer and then we pick it up in freezer trucks. That contributes protein. But those boxes that grocery stores tend to give during the holidays, in the old days they had more salty canned goods. We’re increasing the wellness of those boxes.

The recipe card pilot is really a game-changer because it’s a win-win. There’s a Recipe of the Week positioned near the produce aisle with the ingredients you need to make it. And it’s a win for us because it’s increasing the amount of produce going into the community. It’s a win for them because they’re selling more produce. We fully appreciate the fact that we cannot solve this problem alone and we don’t aspire to. We need sustainable affordable retail access. That’s a big piece of the answer. To be able to engage with the retailers, that’s really amazing.

We also have partnerships with other NGOs. We’re partnering with Martha’s Table to bring vegetables into every single elementary school in D.C.’s Ward 7 and Ward 8 [where there is a higher concentration of poverty.]. We’re partnering with Brighter Bites, an NGO that also helps bring fresh produce into elementary schools.

Three years ago we were in eleven schools and today we’re in 70-some, and we’ll be in even more next year because we’re seeing that that’s really been instrumental in changing the food habits that connect to health later on.

These are great examples of a community partnerships. And certainly CAFB is large enough to be able to reach so many. But do you have advice for other food banks of all sizes across the country? Lessons you’ve learned that you would love to share with other communities?

One: Be bold. Don’t be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom. You know, a lot of food banks have been fearful that if they start to move down this path toward wellness that retailers might pull back and be reluctant to give, because not all of their food is wellness food. That has been the precise opposite of our experience. As we have moved aggressively down the path toward more intentional and deliberate about understanding that our food connects to wellness and health, our relationships with our donors and partners have just intensified. Key to that happening is to have frank transparent and honest conversations with the donors going in. Never to surprise them with anything but to talk to them.

The retail donors are in the same position we are. Society is changing really fast, we’ve all confronted it. We know things now about health we didn’t know 10 years ago, we certainly didn’t know 20 years ago. And everybody’s trying to operationalize it and move on it, and we’ve got to do battle with all sorts of things including our taste buds and appetites and habits and patterns and as long as we understand we’re all in this together, and we build alliances and set goals together, we can really really move far and move fast.

And two: Pounds are not the best metric, because sugary soda weighs a lot, and leafy greens don’t weigh very much. We’re actively exploring other metrics and we don’t have the end-all and be-all metrics, but we are measuring pounds of produce, wellness-pounds, but I think even though pounds is a convenient metric, we have to acknowledge that it isn’t the best metric to drive the outcomes that we want.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.