May 30, 2008

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Jody Tick, Harvest for Health Program Director.

This post is part of a series on nutritious food donations. Also in the series: Addressing Donation Challenges and On Food & Nutrition.

The Capital Area Food Bank is well known for the food it distributes to the community, but our programs also address issues of nutrition to help empower individuals to eat for health.

The inherent nature of most food banks is to accept donations of all types of food products for those in need, regardless of the nutritional value. What we at the CAFB struggle with is that what we teach about healthy eating and nutritional standards doesn’t always match up with the food we provide. And no one understands this better than the kids we serve. Through our Farm Youth Initiative summer program, we teach a nutrition themed class for children at local community organizations which is followed up by a hands-on farm experience so that the children will learn and understand how their food choices affect personal and environmental health. The kids have said, “You are teaching us this, but these are the snacks you gave us.”

How can our programs truly be effective and have impact if the food we provide doesn’t match the material we teach? We are stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. As the CAFB, we provide food to about 700 organizations in the metropolitan area that operate as food pantries, soup kitchens, and after school programs at community organizations, among others. Like many food organizations, we accept and welcome any and every donation; without the generosity of donations, we would fail to exist. At the same time, however, we as a society seem to have accepted that those in need should be thankful to eat whatever is given to them even if it is high calorie, low nutrient and highly processed.

I would like to believe that food organizations, like food banks, can and should evolve to develop nutritional standards for the donations they accept so that those they serve will receive food that provides them with the wherewithal to become self reliant again. This is a paradigm shift that will require a concerted effort from all who participate in the system including clients, service organizations, and those that donate to and fund these organizations.

Jody Tick is the Harvest for Health Program Director at the Capital Area Food Bank. Harvest for Health seeks to facilitate access to affordable, healthy food; educate about the relationship between the food system, our environment, and social justice; and provide skill building opportunities for people to help themselves.

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