Healthy Food Pantry

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COLUMBIA - Food pantry customers not only struggle to put food on the table, they're also more likely to have certain health conditions. Food pantries in mid-Missouri try to help by providing healthy food options and educating people on proper health.

According to research from MU's Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, "Food pantry clients are more likely to be diabetic, have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, or be obese, compared to state averages."

Project coordinator Bill McKelvey cites several factors.

"It could be that folks don't have access to good health care; they don't have regular check ups with the doctor," he said. "It could also be food and diet related, so if they don't have access to healthier foods, that can be an issue."

Poverty and unhealthy eating habits are linked because foods high in fat, sodium and sugar, like snack cakes and TV dinners, are often cheaper than healthy meals or produce. To satisfy their need for healthy food, some people visit food pantries. 

The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri provides food that feeds about 100,000 people a month in 32 counties. Executive Director Lindsay Lopez said the bank established a goal for 25 percent of its acquired and distributed food to be fresh produce.

Brenda Harris visits the Central Pantry once a month to help feed her two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She said it is hard to get food for them at times because of the price of food. She said she's grateful for the pantry and its produce selection, which includes leafy greens, berries, corn, citrus and more.

"It's a blessing," Harris said. "My grand babies can actually get the food and nutrients that they need to be healthy."

The Food Bank partners with organizations, like the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, to collect food. The bank's communications coordinator, Janese Silvey, said one day food pantry volunteers picked up about 1,500 pounds of food just from one grocery. 

The food pantry also has items like canned goods, peanut butter, chicken, bread and cereal.

Lopez said, "Well over 50 to 60 percent of the food that we are acquiring and distributing is coming in the form of, not only the fresh produce, but the canned and frozen fruits and vegetables and proteins."

But the bank won't turn away snack food donations, either. Often the products of local bakeries, sweets like cookie mixes, icing and cupcakes dot the shelves.  

Some food banks, like ones in California and Washington, D.C., have opted not to accept junk food, but McKelvey said creating a policy like that could cause some retail donors to back out completely, and then pantries would have a harder time stocking their shelves.

Silvey said rejecting food like pastries doesn't make sense because if the bank did, the food would end up in a landfill when it could have gone to help feed someone. She said giving clients the power to choose what they get is important.

McKelvey said, "I think most people would agree that some food is better than no food, but when we take a step back from that and look at some of the diet-related health conditions that people face, the question becomes a lot more complicated."

"There's an opportunity for food banks and food pantries to have a conversation with their donors, so to sit down and to maybe look at the types of food that are being donated and really begin a conversation about ways to shift towards healthier foods," he said. 

He said this will take time, but thinks donors will want to do better after knowing the facts about health conditions among food pantry customers.

In the meantime, food pantries are not turning a blind eye on nutrition. Posters on healthy eating, staying active and correct plate proportions are posted on the walls at the Central Pantry, and clients are welcome to take pamphlets on nutritious recipes. 

"Some pantries also partner with other public health agencies or other groups that might offer health screenings," McKelvey said. He said that gives people a chance to learn early on if they have a health condition that needs treatment.

The Food Bank also has a partnership with Grow Well Missouri. The program gives free seeds and educational materials to customers at about a dozen food pantries so they can start their own gardens.

McKelvey, who spearheaded the project, said, "Growing your own food provides you with a ready source of very healthy and fresh food, and so, you know, fruits and vegetables are really good for trying to ward off different types of chronic health conditions."

He said the participants also become relaxed and gain a sense of accomplishment through gardening.

"They take pride in what they've grown," McKelvey said. "They take a lot of pride in being able to share what they've grown with folks in their community."

Grow Well Missouri begins again in March for the last year of its grant. It is training food pantry staff to distribute seeds and teach customers so the program can continue.