Eating Out: Provide healthier menus for food pantries

With Salvation Army bells ringing at the mall and canned goods dropping into bins at the supermarket, the season of giving also means intensified efforts to collect donations and organize food drives for those less fortunate.

Forty-nine million Americans are considered "food insecure" by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, so unfortunately for many "going out to eat" means heading to a community center soup kitchen or emergency food pantry to collect a bag of free groceries.

“We register 100 to 200 people every Wednesday,” said David Riley, the coordinator for the food pantry at Bearen Seventh-Day Adventist Church, “and these are new people coming from all over metro Atlanta.”

Bearen is one of 700 nonprofit agencies served by the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which distributes 23 million pounds of food annually. Donated boxes, cans and bags from consumers and companies stock the shelves, and while providing a sufficient quantity to meet demand is critical, there’s an increasing concern today that the food should be of better nutritional quality.

“Our responsibility is to give them healthy foods,” said Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “We have a strong commitment to get fresh food, so we purchase tractor-trailer loads of fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Riley remembers a huge donation when the Produce Marketing Association convention ended and he set Bearen’s food pantry up like a farmers market.

“People went crazy," he said. "It was real nice, and they asked when can we get more of this?”

Help without hurting

The mission to solicit more food bank donations of fresh produce, whole-grain foods and lower sodium canned goods is under way nationwide. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and other illnesses related to being overweight or obese are disproportionately more common in low-income populations.

Dietitian Roberta Durschlag, the director of nutrition programs at Boston University, surveyed clients of the Family Table food pantry and found that 80 percent of adults and 22 percent of children were overweight or obese. They ate a lot of carbohydrate foods low in fiber and high in sugar and salt.

But dietitian Alison Books, the director of hunger and nutrition for the Family Table, who collaborated on the study, found hope in other findings. Sixty-eight percent of food pantry users said they were interested in eating a healthier diet, and 61 percent wanted to lose weight. The biggest barrier to healthy eating cited was no surprise -- cost. The Family Table now provides fresh produce and whole-grain products such as whole-wheat pasta complete with suggested recipes.

Healthy donations

Local Atlanta restaurants, caterers, food stores and produce companies consistently donate to food assistance programs. Riley says Trader Joe’s even provides special breads for the few families who follow a gluten-free diet.

But not all donations are welcome. “Sometimes I get processed meats donated," Riley said, "but if they’re real high in sodium I try to find something else. I try to give healthy things as much as I can.”

And if you’re cleaning out the closet to donate canned goods to a local food drive this holiday season, make sure items are not opened or expired. Bolling simply suggested, “Give what you would eat yourself.”

Suggested for food drives

Peanut butter, canned tuna, canned beans: choose tuna packed in water

Canned soups, stews and vegetables: reduced-sodium varieties

One hundred percent fruit juice: cans, not glass bottles because they break easily in food bank distribution

Canned fruits: packed in juice, not heavy syrup

Breakfast cereals: low-sugar varieties

Grain foods: whole-wheat pastas, whole-grain crackers and brown rice