So yesterday I volunteered at my local food bank. I knew the pastor that ran the food bank and found out he desperately needed help. I have never worked at a food bank before, so this was a new experience for me.
There were two sides in the building: the Second Harvest Food Bank and the USDA Comm Program. The SH side was for all local residents, regardless of whether they received government assistance. People could come in and get a whole box of a variety of dry goods like cereal, pasta, and canned vegetables. There was also bread and deli meats to choose from. They could also simply grab a shopping bag and pick what they wanted.
The USDA Comm program, which I had never heard of before, was open to all state residents who participated in some sort of government aid program. Each person received a box of food that was the same for everyone. It was whatever the program had shipped to the food bank for the week.
A couple of things from this experience I really feel the need to talk about:
1) I was shocked at what was provided for the USDA Comm boxes. The box this week was 3 packages of dried beans, 1 cooked ham, 3 packages of pre-cooked fried pork patties (30-35 in total), 3 cans of pasta sauce, 3 cans of vegetarian beans (aren't beans vegetarian typically?), and 3 cans of cranberry sauce.
OK, so a lot going on there. I was blown away by the fried pork patties. Those looked extremely unhealthy, with a ton of sodium and fat. I don't really think the dried beans, reduced sodium pasta sauce, and beans necessarily cancelled those out. The patties were the largest amount of food by far. I get the ham with Easter coming up, but that's a lot of pork for one week. Pasta sauce but no pasta? I mean, maybe you could come up with concoction of beans, sauce, and the patties, but most people in this program are probably not very adventurous with trying new recipes. And because they qualify for the USDA comm program did not mean they qualified for the Second Harvest stuff, which did contain pasta. And what's with the cranberry sauce? Why not a no salt canned vegetable option?
I know people say that you can eat healthy on a budget. And I do agree with that to a certain point. The thing is, when you have NO money for food and you are relying on food banks and government assistance, you can't just pop on down to the farmer's market for organic produce or troll Kroger's sale ads. You have to take what they give you just so you have SOMETHING to eat. And people, this is what is being provided. The Second Harvest stuff had some healthy options, but there was a lot of white flour pasta, brand name fruit snacks, sugary cereals, and high-sodium deli meats in those boxes.
I can't really fault the people running the food bank. They distribute what they receive from food and monetary donations. And the thing is, when you have $10 in monetary donations, do you go with the bag of (non-organic) oranges for $5 or the canned mandarin oranges in syrup for 50 cents a can? Their goal is to feed as many as possible, so they can only do so much in terms of healthy provisions. Secondly, you're not going to turn down donations even if they are sugar/salt laden. See the part about what their goal is. And finally, the more processed a food item is, the longer it can sit on a shelf. All of these things work together to cause this issue.
Some of you are thinking...well hey, if you don't have enough money for healthy food, then you need to change your priorities. On to #3.
3) The OVERWHELMING majority of people that came in were elderly people. I was really surprised by this. It wasn't a bunch of "lazy looking" people or possible drug addicts or the dregs of society stereotype that most people slap on individuals who go to food banks. About 90% of them were elderly people who were too frail or had too many health issues to even carry out their own box of food.
These are people who can't re-prioritize their budget needs. What little money they draw from Social Security or other aid is spent on utilities, housing, and transportation. They can't all walk everywhere. The only drugs these people spend money on are cholesterol medications, chemo, and blood pressure pills. Many are people trying to raise their grandchildren because of no-good sons and daughters OR they are taking care of multiple generations because of a child suffering from cancer.
They also can't just run out and get another job to fill in the gaps. Most of these people couldn't run if their life depended on it. They aren't lazy. They're just not doing well physically. And the food they are getting from this program isn't exactly nourishing their bodies or helping with that.
So how do we fix this? First off, we have GOT to stop stereotyping people who participate in these programs. We need to really take a hard look at who needs help and why. I think the elderly are greatly ignored as one of the groups of people really struggling in this economy and that NEEDS to change. I guarantee for every elderly man or woman who swallowed their pride because they needed the food, there are probably 2-3 more in the community who will never come through that door. They grew up in a generation where you didn't take handouts (there weren't a lot of handouts to be had) and you never showed that you were struggling. That's hard programming to overcome when you've lived your whole life with that mentality.
Secondly, if you are donating food, PLEASE try to donate healthy foods. I would have loved to have seen no salt canned veggies and even some fresh fruit and veggies. They had a small amount of bagged potatoes but they went FAST. There weren't nearly enough to go around. Healthy cereals, whole grain breads and pastas would also be great. If it means you have to spend a little more, just do what you can. I think it's better to donate smaller amounts of high-quality products because those will at least offset a little bit what the food bank ends up buying.
We have got to start pushing government aid programs to provide HEALTHIER options. I know I was only at my food bank for one day, but what the government provided for the USDA program is NOT what I would call nutritious or filling in gaps in people's diets. I think this is the program: www.fns.usda.gov/
The example foods they say they provide are NOT what I saw. The only things I saw that was on that list were the beans and the pasta sauce.
This was an eye-opening experience for me. I am thrilled at what my friend has accomplished for such a small-town food bank. But I suspect the problems they face are ones all food banks face, and we have got to work together to change that.
Edited to add: I'm sorry if it comes across that I think the food being provided is worthless because it's unhealthy and has no use. I think what I have more of an issue with is that the government is making this program seem like it is "healthy and nutritious" when in fact it is really there to help people survive and not starve. I think I have more problem with the wording than what they are providing in that sense. If it's food to keep people from starving that may/may not be healthy, then that's fine. Just don't paint it as something it's not. Because unless people see that kind of stuff firsthand or hear about it from others, society is under the assumption that these people are getting nutritious food. I would like to think I'm discerning enough to be suspicious of anything the government says, but a lot of people aren't. I guess I just wanted to bring awareness to that particular assumption.
The food bank side does not make those kinds of claims and they provide food to help people survive. Charlie is trying to put together a nutrition workshop to help get people information on how to use food bank items to put together healthy meals, so I know he is doing the best with what he has and I'm happy he is able to provide a service to a pretty poor and rural community.