Local food shelves aim to provide healthier options for clientsWhen people think of donating food, images of canned vegetables, boxes of cereal and other nonperishable items may pop into their heads.
By: Brandi Jewett, Grand Forks Herald
When people think of donating food, images of canned vegetables, boxes of cereal and other nonperishable items may pop into their heads.
These items may have a long shelf life, but local charitable food program staff members say they would like to have healthier options on their shelves alongside traditional donations.
“We’d like to see more nutritious meals with less salt,” said Cristina Campos, operations manager of the East Grand Forks Food Shelf.
Several agencies are working on making this happen, but it won’t be an overnight change.
Food pantries often don’t have a choice in what type of food is donated to them, which makes reaching the goal of healthier offerings difficult for some programs.
“We’re committed to nutrition,” said Marcia Paulson, director of marketing and development for the Great Plains Food Bank in Fargo. “Unfortunately, there are gaps in the products available.”
The Great Plains Food Bank distributes donations to more than 250 charitable food programs located in 100 communities across North Dakota and Clay County in Minnesota.
The agency doesn’t actively turn away unhealthy donations, but Paulson said they wanted to focus on distributing healthier food.
Paulson said that to provide these options to those using services such as food shelves and soup kitchens, the food bank will have to make more food purchases in addition to relying on donations.
Educating partnering agencies and their clients about choosing healthy options based on the USDA’s nutrition guide, MyPlate, is one of Great Plains Food Bank’s other priorities.
“A lot of work needs to be done,” Paulson said. “But a lot of people can take action and each needs to take a step.”
Despite challenges, the East Grand Forks Food Shelf has found ways to include more fresh food in its offerings. The food shelf’s staff has tended a garden on its property for about 14 years.
“It’s been producing abundantly,” Campos said.
This summer, two other small gardens planted by volunteer groups will donate their harvests to the facility as well. Campos said this type of donation isn’t limited to volunteer groups.
“I always encourage those with gardens to plant a little extra and donate it,” she said.
The Great Plains Food Bank, the state agriculture department and other agencies have organized a similar initiative called the Hunger Free North Dakota Garden Project. The project encourages residents statewide to plant extra produce in an effort to increase the amount donated to charitable food programs in the state.
Last year, about 250,000 pounds of produce was donated through the initiative. This year, organizers want to see the project hit a lifetime total of 1 million pounds, according to Jamie Good, a local food specialist with the state agriculture department.
While some are planting more produce, others are taking a scientific approach to addressing the problem.
One of them is University of Minnesota Associate Professor Susie Nanney. Concerned that food shelves don’t have a way to evaluate the food they offer, she recently conducted a pilot study of six food shelves in Minnesota.
Nanney, who works in the university’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, took a clipboard and shelf by shelf, conducted an inventory of every food item. She then calculated a score using the Healthy Eating Index, a widely used measure of diet quality that employs a 100-point scale.
“Our food shelves scored a score of 67,” Nanney said. “This is higher than the McDonald’s dollar menu, so that’s a plus.”
The food shelves also scored better than the average American diet, which earns a 53. But Nanney said there’s lots of room for improvement. One of the main problems, she said, is high levels of sodium. The biggest offenders were canned soups, bakery items, and boxed macaroni and cheese.
“As a registered dietician and a researcher in this area, we do know it’s not enough just to add healthy foods to the environment,” she said. “We have to reduce the less healthy foods as well.”
Julie Siple with Minnesota Public Radio News contributed to this report.
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