Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cleaning Out the Pantry

We have all felt the impact of the economic recession, some more so than others. Over the past year, food insecurity has become a pressing issue in the U.S. Simultaneously food pantries have experienced a 40 percent drop in annual donations, a troubling statistic in a time when 1 in 7 families struggle to put food on the table, despite help from the federal food stamp program. In an economic climate when all non-profits, including food banks and pantries, are in need of funds, it is imperative to make sure that food relief programs continue and are as effective as possible. Those of us who can give should do so often. But it is equally important to rethink what we give. Increasingly, food banks are hoping to ensure that those who are hungry have access to fresh, healthy food choices.

Food pantries look forward to a spike in donations every year during the holiday season. In my neighborhood, school kids go from door to door collecting boxes of food for the local food bank just before Thanksgiving and lots of people volunteer to cook and serve meals at the soup kitchen and shelter downtown. Unfortunately, after the New Year, our spirit of giving tends to taper off. In order to counteract reliance on the ebb and flow of community giving, some food banks have updated to a “virtual food bank” model. This means making donations by purchasing specified foods from a virtual grocery store of sorts, where the food bank lists items that they actually need. You can also make monetary donations online. Both of these donation models give the food bank more agency in choosing what to offer to their clients, eliminating the risk of ending up with whatever is left in the dusty corners of donor’s cupboards.

Online donations through a “virtual food bank” means purchasing specified foods from a virtual grocery store of sorts, which lists items that the food bank actually needs. You can also or can simply be a cash donation, letting those who run the food bank choose what to buy. This also enables food pantries to possibly choose healthier items to stock the shelves. Rather than getting canned fruit packed in sugary syrup they might choose a no-sugar added variety, low sodium vegetables and soups, and whole grain pastas. Despite lean economic times and limited budgets, many food banks and pantries are demanding fresher, healthier food in order to truly address the nutritional needs of their clientele.

It is clear that food banks are not the most sustainable way to fight hunger, but they certainly fill an immediate need in our communities. Until we find better ways to address the issues of hunger and food insecurity that affect so many of our neighbors, we must continue to give generously to our community food pantries year-round and support them as many try to offer healthier food choices.

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