Some Pantry Donations are Better than Others
Call it the charitable paradox food pantries encounter. Donors' hearts might be in the right place when dropping off boxes or grocery bags overflowing with goods to give away to the needy. But, for some, their minds might not be reading the nutrition label on the back as closely as they would when feeding their own families.
"It's the 'they're desperate' stigma; they'll eat anything,'" said Yvonne Sharlein, emergency food assistance director for Lakeshore Community Action Program, which serves nine Northeastern Wisconsin counties.
That mindset, deliberate or not, leaves churches or secular nonprofits in a no-win bind: trying to stock shelves, cupboards and freezers not only with foodstuffs meeting the rock-bottom requirement of keeping bellies full for another day or week, but helping maintain and improve their clients' health, many of them children, as well.
"It's the 'Beggars can't be choosers' way of thinking," dietitian Karen Early said. "Pantries initially didn't want to go there. They were afraid people wouldn't donate if we started telling them what to donate."
But Early, coordinator of the FoodWise healthy-eating educational program for Brown County's UW-Extension office, set about trying to prove the opposite.
First, she examined what givers typically contribute by examining items collected during the U.S. letter carriers' annual food drive in the spring, a study sample of some 1,000 foods. That led her to conclude that some advice was indeed in order. If the goal is to reduce the amount of borderline junk food that's being donated, all one can do is ask.
Early developed a "toolkit" called the Food Drive 5 for pantries and donors, emphasizing high-protein eats like nuts, canned seafood and poultry; vegetable soups (also a good source of protein); canned fruit either dried, sauced or packed in natural juices; whole-wheat pasta and cereal; and the "colorful" canned veggies like bursting-green peas and glow-orange carrots that are higher in nutritional value.
She also stressed choosing low-sodium options and checking expiration dates. Food drives could follow the theme by highlighting one of the featured "five" on a particular day of the week – Tuna Tuesday, Fruity Friday or (Whole-Wheat) Macaroni Monday, for example.
"You have to have the mindset to get that information out there," Sharlein said. "Church pantries rely entirely on donations, and even the certified pantries who get USDA (surpluses) have to match, say, 50 pounds of (government) food with 50 pounds of donations. We strongly suggest that it be healthy foods and try to get that information out to food drives.
"It's getting better, but I wouldn't say it's solved yet."
Contrary to the earlier worries, food donations in Brown County leaped 30 percent in the first year of the Food Drive 5 initiative, Early said. A five-year overview of whether it's working found a steady 14 percent yearly increase in healthful giving and a decrease in the amount of fattening, sugary or otherwise undesirable choices.
"When people got the message, they actually wanted to donate more," Early said. "I can tell you, when I'm in a food drive, I'm picky," said Carmen Schroeder, dietitian at Door County Medical Center in Sturgeon Bay. "You get more nutrition out of kidney beans than maybe baked beans in sauce, (more out of) canned tomatoes, canned fruit. Consider some of these instead of the 25-cents macaroni."
"It's not as good as picking
something off a vine or making
something homemade, but there are
better choices out there (to give).”
— Yvonne Sharlein, Emergency Food
Assistance Director, Lakeshore
Community Action Program (CAP)
Schroeder also suggested that donors, if in doubt about the best choices, make a simple, direct cash gift to a pantry. Volunteers can then selectively buy the more desired items.
Canned fruit, the experts said, might at first glance be frowned upon for high-sugar content and calories. But if swimming in the fruit's natural juices instead of syrup or artificial sugar additives, it burns more efficiently and provides energy and a wealth of vitamins. "It's not as good as picking something off a vine or making something homemade, but there are better choices out there (to give)," Sharlein said.
Sharlein said improving the dietary variety at food pantries depends on overcoming a path-of-least-resistance approach to donating. "My pet peeve is Ramen noodles," Sharlein said with an almost evangelical zeal. "They're absolutely the worst thing for you. But my son had a food drive at school and the class with the most donations got a pizza party.
"He said, 'We have to get more Ramen noodles because we're down by so many packages.' By the time I got done buying Ramen noodles, I could have just bought pizza for the whole class."
A pantry in Waupaca that Sharlein supervises displays a "Wall of Shame" of "the horrible things people donate" -- an educational endeavor that might seem heavy-handed but which Sharlein said she "loves."
"Aunt Betty died and left a 100-year-old can of salmon, a half-eaten jar of peanut butter," Sharlein said with maybe only a bit of exaggeration. "The rule of thumb they use is if you wouldn't eat it yourself, you shouldn't donate it. We preach to our pantries to treat the clients with respect, and part of that is providing decent, healthy foods. "Boy Scout food drives and the like are wonderful, but we don't want (them to) be: 'OK, time to clean out the cupboards.'"
But even when a donor is ready and willing to give fresh fruits and vegetables, some educational challenges remain.
In Brown County, the "Planting For Purpose" program tries to notify growers about the operating hours for local pantries or align food drives accordingly, Early said. This is because many volunteer- run pantries might be open only a couple days per week and lack the cold storage for meat or fresh produce to keep.
"Every local UWExtension office should have a list of pantries in their area and hours," Early said. "Then you can develop a relationship with them and know the appropriate time to bring things in. Some of the produce (pantries) get is just so old.
Lakeshore CAP in Sturgeon Bay gets donations of fresh produce in-season or from generous groceries year-round.
Sharlein said the Door County office does an excellent job of sharing recipes and putting out samples on how to healthfully prepare those fruits, veggies and other products from their shelves.
That is the other half of the educational equation. Some low-income shoppers might bypass healthy choices at the store because of higher cost. At the pantry, they might do the same not because they're junk-food addicts but out of unfamiliarity with how to store or prepare food, Schroeder said.
"Were they raised in a family where someone was cooking?" she said. "Later generations don't cook as much. There might be both parents working, or one of the parents doing more than one job in a household, or a single parent (all limiting the time to cook)."
But the internet's loaded with information on preparing healthy meals fairly quickly and inexpensively, Schroeder said. Free online access at the library is a way to find this instruction without a smartphone or home computer – or simply check out a cookbook.
"I love kale and kale won't die; you can put it in a jar and use it (later) in soups or scrambled eggs," Schroeder said as an example. "You can put canned tomatoes in a pantry, but you need to know how to use those tomatoes. UW-Extension will teach you to make spaghetti sauce."
For more information about Brown County Extension's "Healthy Pantry Initiative," do an online search for the Food Drive 5 Toolkit or go to www.co.brown.wi.us/i/f/files/BrownCountyFoodDrive5Toolkit_July2015(1).pdf. For help eating on a budget, dietitian Carmen Schroeder suggests the websites EatRight.org or snaped.fns.usda.gov. The latter is a federal government site with links to nutrition education, recipes and menus, and how to "eat right when money's tight."