This story appeared on the AP national wire and ran on Page A08 of The Washington Post.

February 13, 2004, Friday, BC cycle
DIET: Nation’s food banks put more emphasis on nutrition

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: Domestic News

LENGTH: 749 words

Just five years ago the Greater Boston Food Bank couldn’t give away a carrot.

In fact, in 1999 it handed out no fresh produce at all. Last year, the food bank gave away 3 million pounds of it, nutrition manager Leslie Oliver says.

From Boston to Dallas to Oakland, Calif., food banks for the poor are increasing their stores of fresh and frozen produce and lean meats, and they’re trying to teach their customers how to eat healthier.

Says Oliver, whose operation supplies 750 shelters and food pantries: “We didn’t want to be a snack bank” anymore.

To satisfy their hunger, the poor often rely on grains, sugars and fats, said Matt Longjohn, executive director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children.

“That’s opposed to lean meats and fruits and vegetables that you really only find in the middle- and upper-end grocery stores but certainly not in the caged-in grocery stores that are the hallmarks of these communities,” Longjohn said.

In Dallas 15 years ago, Mary Johnson got government cheese, peanut butter and damaged, off-brand canned goods from a local ministry when she was between jobs and needed help feeding her family.

“When you opened it up, it might not be good,” she recalled.

The 56-year-old divorced mother of three grown children sought food assistance again this month after she lost her telemarketing job.

This time, she left North Dallas Shared Ministries – one of 400 nonprofit agencies served by the North Texas Food Bank – with fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs.

“It’s just wonderful,” said Johnson, whose unemployment check barely covers her apartment rent.

In the last 10 years, efforts to improve the product mix at food banks have gained momentum, said Sue Hofer with America’s Second Harvest. The Chicago-based organization works with more than 200 regional food banks.

Corporate grants by companies such as Kraft, ConAgra and Tyson have helped food banks and their affiliate agencies increase their capacity to store and ship refrigerated and frozen foods.

“It didn’t do any good for us to accept a truckload of yogurt with a use-by or sell-by date of next week if we didn’t have anybody who could accept delivery of that,” Hofer said.

In the 2003 fiscal year, America’s Second Harvest distributed more than 83 million pounds of fruits and vegetables. That’s a gigantic leap from 3.8 million pounds in 1995.

“Obviously, there’s still a lot to do, but we have moved produce to No. 1 on the list of products shipped to our food banks,” Hofer said. “It’s a huge stride in just a very few years.”

And it takes food banks beyond the typical household handout.

“What you find a lot of times in donated foods is what somebody has in their pantry,” said Jan Pruitt, executive director of the Dallas food bank. “They say, ‘The kids won’t eat this,’ or, ‘I thought I was going to make fudge, but I didn’t.’ It’s that kind of donation.”

Charity food providers relied primarily on such donations to feed the hungry until a few years ago, when the high rate of obesity among the poor became a concern.

In Oakland, the Alameda County Community Food Bank considered banning soda from its warehouse.

Instead, its managers chose to focus on education, posting health information by the carbonated drinks in storage where clients pick up food – along with a 16-pound bag of sugar designed to help make the point.

“I drink soda,” said Suzan Bateson, the food bank’s executive director. “I don’t drink a lot of it, but I drink it. It’s part of my diet. What I find helpful is getting information about how many I should be drinking, or should I be feeding this to a 2-year-old.”

In Dallas, the North Texas Food Bank decided to make milk, eggs, rice, pinto beans and pasta always available.

“We are raising more and more dollars so we can go out and purchase the food that’s needed,” Pruitt said.

Through a “virtual food drive,” donors can go online and contribute money to buy such items. Such purchases topped 832,000 pounds last year – a figure the Dallas food bank estimates will nearly triple to more than 2.2 million this year.

The goal: making a healthy diet an option for everyone.

“You and I go make our choices standing in a grocery store where there are hundreds of choices,” Pruitt said. “The families that we’re talking about go to a small church somewhere in their neighborhood where the choices may be very small.”

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