More than 6 million households depend on meals obtained at food banks and pantries each year. Monday Kaiser Permanente and Mazon, a Jewish anti-hunger organization, announced a new health initiative that will do wonders to serve not just any food at food banks, but nutritious, healthier options. The Healthy Options, Healthy Meals initiative, is a direct response to the overwhelming need for so many millions of Americans—including young children and seniors whose nutrition is vital–who rely on food banks. It also follows the trend in politics that has shined a spotlight on the importance of good, healthy options, in an effort to curb the obesity and diabetes epidemic.
Food banks are now working to change inventory from leftover food to more nutritious and fresher options. Some pantries have even gone so far as to enact policies that prohibit donations of soda or candy. Others have hired nutritionists to consult on portion control, ratios of meat to fresh produce and news ways to seek food and monetary donations.
In a statement released by Abby Leibman, president of Mazon, she said “It is clear to us that food banks and food pantries have a unique and critical role to play in advancing nutritious food options for those they serve.” So far twelve food banks have taken part in the new health initiative.
Mazon began correlating the links between obesity and hunger over a decade ago. They compared data and collected information about programs that worked to get nutritious food to people who needed it. It looks like in partnership with Kaiser, the efforts have paid off as they are now implementing change based on that very data. Armed with support from these organizations, many food banks have been getting the word out to donors–in an effort to educate them about the sorts of food people need–about suggested food lists. Historically, food banks were started to accept any food whether it was surplus or fatty. The old paradigm was: food is food when feeding the hungry. But now that there is a lean toward ‘nutritious’ food as opposed to ‘any’ food, donations seem to work best, at least in this transition phase. While change is simply trickling right now, some food banks in California and elsewhere, have already partnered with local farms to take produce that might be too small or misshapen for general sale, but still considered nutritious and fresh.
Loel Solomon, vice president for community health at Kaiser Permanente, stressed that, “Being poor and having a challenge making ends need meet doesn’t mean you should take whatever you can get. Everyone deserves healthy food. Poor people are likely to suffer from chronic disease more than people of means, so their needs for healthful food is particularly acute. Kaiser has worked with schools, corner stores, farmers markets and other institutions in the areas where it provides health services, and decided to move toward food banks too.”
On a recent Los Angeles news segment that featured a local food bank during Thanksgiving, the reporter asked about a meal–assuming it was a pasta dish—that a local well-known chef had been brought in especially to prepare(among other fancy dishes on the menu). He replied, that this year, in order to spice up the menu and add variety, he had added a spaghetti squash based pasta dish. He explained that since spaghetti squash has the same consistency as pasta but is better for you, you don’t lose taste, but you gain nutrition.
A change in the times, food banks have gone from Sloppy Joe’s to spaghetti-squash pasta dishes. But it’s probably safe to assume that most would agree, at least in this particular instance, that this health care reform is indeed a positive move in the right direction.