June 2, 2008

On Food & Nutrition

This post is part of a series on nutritious food donations. Also in the series: Between a Rock and a Hard Place and Addressing Donation Challenges.

Jody Tick posted on Friday about trying to navigate through the need for food donations and the obligation many of us feel to provide food that is nutritional. As the person who coordinates many of our food donations, I know that they take all sorts of forms. Many times we’ve received incredible help. There is a person, for example, who brings us whole truckloads of fresh bread twice a week. He’s so humble about it that I don’t even know his name. Other times we have to make hard decisions. What happens when, say, someone drops off potato chips, Hostess snacks, or something equally unhealthy? You might be surprised to learn that donations like this are infrequent, but when they come up, it’s hard to know what to do with them.

I think it’s really great that everyone at Bread for the City has taken such dramatic steps toward making sure we have food that is as nutritional as possible. It proves that we take our mission very seriously, and that we are willing to do what’s best for our community despite expense. That said, free food is free food, and at some foundational level it is very hard to turn anything away.

I think Jody, toward the end of her post, makes a brilliant point that changing the situation means changing the mindset that an “average person’s” refuse is a poor person’s meal, or that if you’re poor, you’d better take anything you can. A person going hungry will take anything they can get. But we shouldn’t set the bar lower just because we can. Since so many individuals from every societal class don’t know much about nutrition, education on healthy eating habits is important to making sure we’re all on the same page.

I would also go one step further and say every food pantry should be telling every volunteer, donor, and reporter that comes through our door specific information about what constitutes healthy food. I can’t speak for other organizations, but many of our volunteers also donate food when they can, and our fiscal donors are often happy to support our efforts with seasonal food drives. Narrowing those food drives to one or two items that are healthy (a pasta and rice drive, perhaps) will ensure we’re able to keep those essential staples on-hand and might cut down on the number of times we have to make difficult decisions about food.

My boss Kristin tells me at least twice a week that most people are, by nature, extraordinarily generous. When they see a problem, they want to fix it. I’ll leave a debate on human nature for another time, but the solution to unhealthy donations might be making sure people understand how much of a problem unhealthy food is.

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