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Food Assistance Programs: What we don't hear about

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

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:

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.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Things are tight with my boyfriend and I. We've had to eat from the food shelf and its frustrating to get things that are in no means healthy. We also eat at the church from time to time and it's the same situation. You do what you gotta to do but it makes more sense why a good portion of our nation is obese.
    1878 days ago
    Used to volunteer at a pantry regularly when I was in Madison, and miss that place fiercely. Appreciate your volunteer effort, and agree with a lot of what you said, but, perhaps due to the population that the pantry I'd go to served (poor, and, increasingly over the past 5 years, even folks who were ordinarily an economic step or two ahead of poor), I didn't think of the elderly as the primary beneficiaries of such organizations. I've heard that theory before, that the generational barrier to accepting handouts is a big reason older folks don't go to pantries, but there also factors of cultural pride, macho resistance, etc, that preclude people who could use the services, even if they're not out and out starving, to help make ends meet better.

    I actually thought about this the other day, when I saw a blog pop up across the feed for one of my teams. I clicked on it, and read a tale of no money and needing to make what little food remaining stretch out...and I thought of suggesting a visit to a pantry. But then I talked myself out of it, just because I didn't know if it was an option the person had ever tried, or if not, what barrier that person might have needed to overcome. And now, I'm totally failing to recall what team it was or the user's name. I wish I had made that suggestion, because the story sounded a lot like some of the tales I'd heard chatting to folks at the pantry.

    As for the contents, a lot of pantry operations depends on what is available to them. I liked mine, in terms of offering clients the chance to select their own options in dry and canned goods, and then gave dairy and fruits and vegetables besides. It made for a mess in terms of foot/cart traffic sometimes (especially as the number of families served rose as the economy got worse), but there was a modicum of dignity in being able to select items, and not just being given a pre-packaged box. That isn't to disparage any other organization doing this important, crucial work...just saying that I liked how the place I went to did things.

    Hope you'll excuse the ramble all over your blog. Do appreciate that you took the time to help out, so many people are in need, for so many reasons.
    1883 days ago
    Thanks to you and all of the volunteers for donating your time and effort and speaking out in an effort to make things better.
    1884 days ago
    Thanks for your volunteer service! It does us all a lot of good to know that there are people out there who care.
    1885 days ago
    Bravo! If everybody speaks out about things like this it helps! As a 4-H leader we do a couple of canned food drives for our local foods banks each year. We post flyers before we do them listing some of the best items for donation (fruit in natural juice, low salt veggies, tuna in water). Most 4-H groups are based on community involvement. There may be a group in your area that would like to help. We do Trick or Treat so Others Can Eat right before Halloween - with groups going door to door with a parent or leader with each group. We also try to have one in May - before school is out. Many of our school age children only get nutritious meals at school so we help the food bank stock up on things like Peanut butter, crackers, tuna, juices and things to feed the children while they are on summer break.
    1885 days ago
    I do agree that more could be done to help these people, but honestly, it seems really nitpicky to me to be outraged at high sodium or white flour or organics at food banks. Maybe it's my background, but while our family couldn't afford much, we were able to make healthy meals with what we had access to, and we weren't too picky. There were families in our area much more worse off than us, and while we couldn't afford to help them out much, my father would drop off a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of white bread when he could. Not the healthiest thing, but it kept some of those kids from starving.

    A few of the food documentaries I've watched have glossed over the childhood obesity problem when I felt that they had valid points that could have been expanded on more. When the poor only have access to these kinds of foods, it causes a real problem in both the child's health, and their perception of what a meal is. I was reading a news article the other day about how some inner city families have no access to fresh fruits or vegetables at all because the local corner stores jut don't carry it. Blows my mind. I can't imagine having to do all my grocery shopping at a gas station and not having access to produce.

    I think more fresh fruits& vegetables and non-processed proteins would go a long way in filling in the dietary gaps, but I can understand how those would be passed over for cheaper, more shelf-stable items. Especially in areas where it might be harder to get the produce, too :(

    The whole pasta-sauce-but-no-pasta thing seems utterly ridiculous to me, though. That's got to be some sort of situation where they just got a ton of it, so that was what was going into the boxes. Not a lot of thought into how things will go together. :/ And that's a real shame.

    1885 days ago
    I agree with you 100%
    1886 days ago
    very eye opening experience... thank you for sharing!!

    1886 days ago
    Wow, great blog! You sound so energized. Maybe you can do more work with the food bank and use your passion to steer it in the right direction! emoticon
    1886 days ago
  • KITT52
    we learn something new every day..thanks for the info....and for helping out for those who need help
    1886 days ago
    It really is ashame that our population in general does not have a handle on the fact that we are what we eat. If we eat junk -- well, that's how our healthy will be -- junky. Then you throw in the fact that so many are a "captive audience" in relying on food banks due to economic hardships, and all they can do is choose from what is provided -- healthy or not. It really is a dilemma for so many.

    I shop @ two local chain grocery stores which both collect food for the food pantry. But the donations are limited to non-perishable items. I try to donate as many healthy options as I can (things like steel cut oats instead of the sugar coated chocolate bomb cereals; whole wheat bread instead of white bread; natural peanut butter; nuts -- things like that).

    There's a lot of fixing to be done.
    1886 days ago
    *vegetarian beans = baked beans made without pork fat/bits of pork. Traditional/regular baked beans (like Campbell's or the classic Bush's ones not labelled vegetarian) have pork.

    Yeah, we've done holiday food drives at work before, and some of the stuff people brought in to donate skeeved me pretty badly. It was pretty obvious that a few people used the donation drive as a "clean out the pantry" opportunity, and just donated stuff they had extra of/didn't want. Gross.

    Like you, I have no issue with the programs, I just would like to educate people who are donating. Don't be like "Guess I'll clean out my pantry of stuff that's not good enough for ME to eat." I mean... ew. Right? It's not just me?

    Fortunately, my awesome supervisor rounded up a bunch of us slackers who brought cash instead of goods (which was also part of the drive, they buy turkeys and stuff) and took us shopping. We picked through the boxes before we left so we knew what they already had and could fill in the gaps.
    1886 days ago
    This was a very interesting read!

    As far as our government programs are concerned, there's a lot of fixing that needs to be done, and as far as the elderly are concerned, I wholeheartedly agree with you! I've heard and seen of so many falling through the cracks. A co-worker of mine even told me about an instance where an elderly woman was buying tons of on-sale cat food and it turned out she had no cats! That was all she could afford for herself! It's terrible.

    From a bureaucratic standpoint, I can see how fresh and/or healthy foods aren't looked on fondly. They tend to be more expensive, have extremely shorter lifespans, and cost a lot more in terms of keep, transport, etc. And the fact that it's putting unhealthy foods in the mouths of the needy is terrible. The only way that anything can be done to remedy this is by the private sector, considering the current state of things. Donations and awareness have to be the first step I think.

    It's things like this that really make you angry, yet at the same time appreciative for what you do have in life. I'm glad to hear that you are taking this experience to heart and are looking to not only better yourself but those in need that you have encountered. Are there any other assistance programs in the area, maybe a private or church-funded program like meals on wheels? Perhaps you could spearhead the start of that program with other churches in the area, or see if any boy or girls scout troops would be interested in helping with donations or setting up a city-wide food drive or something.

    1886 days ago
    What an eye-opening blog post. Thank you so much.
    1886 days ago
    I work at a church that is a distrubtion center for food. I fully agree, things need to change. The food available is dependent on the time of year though. As I live in LA, we are starting to see more fresh fruit available as the farmers are starting to produce more than they can sell.
    It is a tough balance. Health versus quanity. One option might be to do a healthy food drive for your local food bank. Some of the local churches do that here. We get alot of cans of vegetables donated along with brown rice, fruit in water, tuna in water etc.
    Hope this helps
    1886 days ago
    This country - in fact, the *world* - really needs to rethink their view of "senior citizens" (gawd, I HATE that phrase - now it seems so offensive and patronizing)'s way beyond time for change in that area!

    All that having been said, what's even more offensive is what supposedly intelligent folk pass off as acceptable in terms of food about the dumbing down of society - this truly, *truly* takes the cake (no pun intended)!

    1886 days ago
    I really appreciate your point of view MAMISHELI53. I guess I didn't really think of it in terms of calories alone to avoid starvation. In that case, the program fulfills that particular goal. I'm still really thankful that we have such a program and would never advocate not having it at all because I know it does help people who are struggling. But it's still troublesome to see things high in sugar, white flour, and sodium being offered to people who struggle with health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure. Especially when the government uses words like "nutritious" and "healthy" on the informational text for the program. If it's to ensure people don't starve, then state that. Don't paint it as something it's not, I guess.
    1886 days ago
    I have both donated to and benefitted from such programs. You are so right about the fat and sodium problems. But I think that's a long-standing problem that will take a long time to work out of the system.
    While the high fat is not good, if it is a matter of getting enough CALORIES, it's a somewhat acceptable trade-off. A canned ham can be soaked for a while to leech out the sodium.
    Even the cranberry sauce - it has CALORIES which can help to avoid starvation.
    But yes - donating HEALTHY stuff is the best.
    Blessings to you on this journey to a healthy lifestyle.
    1886 days ago
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