Food Banks Look to Offer More Nutritious Food

November 19, 2012

With the holiday season upon us, many turn their thoughts to the importance of food banks to provide healthy meals for those in need. In fact, nearly 6.1 million U.S. households rely annually on food banks and pantries for their meals, and not just at Thanksgiving. To make sure that food banks provide nutrition as well as sustenance, several food banks are redefining their standard food offerings and working to make nutritious, healthy foods more available. The 12 participating food banks are part of the Healthy Options, Healthy Meals™ initiative, a partnership between MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and Kaiser Permanente. The Center for Total Health blog recently spoke with Marla Feldman, director for the Healthy Options, Healthy Meals™ initiative to learn more about this important work.

CTH blog:
Tell us about your organization and your approach to preventing hunger in our society.

Marla Feldman:

A Jewish Response to Hunger is a national nonprofit organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. Since our founding in 1985, MAZON has practiced and promoted a holistic approach to preventing hunger, advocating to ensure that hungry people have access to the nutritious food they need today and working to develop and advance long-term solutions so that no one goes hungry tomorrow.

CTH blog:

What are you seeing right now in terms of demand for emergency food assistance and how food banks are meeting this demand?

Marla Feldman:

The downturn in the economy has caused tremendous growth in demand at food banks and food pantries—between 30-70 percent year-over-year since 2009—coupled with an appreciable decrease in donations to their organizations. Needless to say, these challenges put a significant strain on emergency food providers’ ability to meet the needs of hungry people in their communities, and many are struggling to keep up.

CTH blog:

You recently partnered with Kaiser Permanente on the Healthy Options, Healthy Meals™ initiative. What is the primary goal of the initiative and how did it originate?

Marla Feldman:

The goal of Healthy Options, Healthy Meals™ is simple: to get healthier food to the people who need it—specifically, those who must rely on food banks to feed their families.

MAZON has been helping to increase capacity within the anti-hunger community for 15 years. From 1998 to 2010, MAZON hosted annual conferences bringing California’s anti-hunger community together to discuss current budget and policy priorities and help direct their advocacy efforts. By 2003, our conference presented workshops that explored ways the anti-hunger community could play a lead role in preventing obesity and diet-related illnesses. Those initial discussions led to the 2007 launch of a three-year California initiative to promote healthier eating in low-income communities. This program attracted the interest of Kaiser Permanente, and Healthy Options, Healthy Meals™ was born.

It is important to note that food banks began in the 1970s with the intention of gathering surplus food to distribute as a stopgap measure to help people get through emergency situations. Whether or not the food that was provided was nutritious wasn’t really a primary issue, because it was providing for a need that was temporary. But as the role of food banks has evolved over time, food banks have had to adapt and grow. Now, with the rise in obesity and its relationship to food insecurity, food banks have come to embrace the role they play not only in alleviating hunger, but also in building healthier communities.

CTH blog:

Why is it so important to establish formal nutrition policies at food banks? Tell us more about the collaborative process you are engaging in to create these policies and the successes you’re seeing.

Marla Feldman:

In a nutshell, formal, written nutrition policies provide a concrete blueprint for how emergency food providers can increase the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages they distribute. Having policies is important for a number of reasons: they provide guidance in ambiguous situations, where “common sense” and good intentions may not be enough; they ensure continuity and consistency through staff changes; they support educating donors about the types of donations they prefer to receive; they help steer outreach and nutrition education efforts; and they change the way food banks are talking about their work. This process is about building organizational culture and making organizational changes that are helping food banks become nutrition banks.

Creating a nutrition policy is a more complex task than you might think, because the most effective ones are created through a deliberate process of cooperation and collaboration of all organizational stakeholders—from the Board of Directors and Executive Director to those who work in the warehouse; from procurement staff to marketing to operations; and from donors to agencies to clients. Engaging so many key stakeholders in the policy development process is not the cultural norm for food banks. That’s why our Healthy Options, Healthy Meals™ initiative is so revolutionary and important.

CTH blog:

What’s the best thing one person can do right now to help those in need get access to nutritious food?

Marla Feldman:

As a long-time employee of an anti-hunger advocacy organization, I’d have to say that it’s paramount that we create the political will to end hunger and malnutrition in America. I’d encourage people to get out and advocate on behalf of those who are vulnerable. Impress upon your federal and state policymakers that we will no longer accept that 50 million people, in the wealthiest country in the world, struggle to put nutritious food on the table. It’s much easier than you think to call your Senator and Congressperson or to make an appointment to speak with someone in their office. And, rest assured, they do want to hear from you, and it does make a difference!

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