Many of America's food banks and food pantries are drastically cutting the amount of junk food they offer while increasing the amount of fresh produce they hand out. They're also finding ways to entice those in need to choose healthier foods.
NPR reports that non-nutritious foods like soda and chips are no longer accepted at Washington, D.C.'s Capital Area Food Bank, one of the country's largest. In one year, it has decreased the amount of junk food it gives to its 444 nonprofit partners by 84 percent. In California, the SF-Marin Food Bank has stopped accepting soda donations.
To get recipients to choose healthier options, some food pantries are getting creative, like the Sharing Life Community Outreach in Texas. They "nudge" clients by strategically placing some foods like brown rice in two different places and making them easy to access. Less nutritious white rice is put on a higher shelf.
Down in Southern Arizona by the Mexican border, the Borderlands Food Bank takes the fresh produce that wholesalers turn away at the border (because it's imperfect) and distribute 35-40 million pounds of it each year. And Feeding America recently announced a seven-year commitment to increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables it distributes and increase the demand of healthier options among donors and recipients.
Donating nutritious food
With the season of giving coming up, we'll have many opportunities to donate.
If you're asked to donate to a food bank and you have the choice between donating cash or food, go for the cash. If you're going to donate food to a food pantry, or the only option for donating is with food — perhaps you're asked to bring food for the local food bank as admission to your kid's school holiday concert — make sure it's nutritious and not out of date.
(The use by, best by and sell by dates on many foods are arbitrary, some food banks will throw away food that is past those dates out of an abundance of caution. But if you're reaching into your own cabinets for food to donate, grab foods that you've bought recently and double check the date on them.)
Grab foods that are nutritious, too. If you're donating cans of soup, vegetables, beans or other canned goods, reach for low-sodium varieties. At the Capital Area Food Bank, 48 percent of the people the bank serves suffer from high blood pressure. If you're giving nut butters, applesauce, or other foods that often have sugar added, search for no-sugar versions to give. Donate brown rice instead of white rice and whole grain pasta instead of white pasta. Choose heart-healthier cooking oils. Make your gifts as nutritious as possible.
What about fresh foods?
While food banks and food pantries are increasingly finding ways to offer fresh dairy, meats, breads, vegetables and fruits, storing them can still be an issue. Unless you know for certain your donation of fresh food is wanted — and that means asking questions and getting a definite yes from someone at the donation center — stick with non-perishables.