Eastern Iowa food banks promote fresh foods, long-term health

Pantries face continuing challenges as demand continues to rise

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Editor’s note: One in a series of stories on poverty, a topic that The Gazette considers a content priority for 2013.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Amanda Pieper was thrilled to see eggplant in the HACAP Food Reservoir last year, but the vegetable was ignored by the food assistance agencies HACAP serves.

“We had a great donation,” said Pieper, the food reservoir’s director. “No one knew what to do with them, so they stayed in the warehouse and got yucky.”

This is a rare event in the reservoir’s history, but it highlights one of the challenges distributing food to those in need: Food nutrition education.

Obesity and diet-related diseases are rising among individuals struggling to afford food.

According to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, food banks across the nation are altering their nutrition-related policies and practices to address these concerns.

“For those who struggle to put food on the table, it is not just about too few calories, it is also about not having access to healthy foods and adequate nutrition,” Marlene Schwartz, senior author and deputy director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, said in a statement. “In response, leading food banks across the country have adapted to strategically promote healthier foods and beverages.”

The researchers interviewed administrators from 20 food banks throughout the country about their current nutrition policies and practices, and the challenges they face. Every food bank that participated in the analysis was part of the Feeding America Network, a non-profit organization that consists of a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks.

HACAP is a member of the Feeding America Network, but administrators weren’t interviewed for the study.

HACAP doesn’t have written policies in place regarding nutrition beyond general food safety, but CEO Jane Drapeaux said distributing nutritious food is a top priority.

Demand rising

“Unfortunately, when it comes to donations, our hands are tied,” she said. “If someone wants to donate milk, we can’t say, ‘Oh, we only want 2 percent.’?”

At a time when 13.4 percent of the state’s population doesn’t know where their next meal will comes from — this is according to 2010 figures from the most recent Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report — now isn’t the time to refuse donations.

“Donations are down, but the demands for service are higher than ever,” Drapeaux said.

In fiscal year 2009, HACAP, which serves a seven-county area, assisted 89,944 households, providing slightly more than 1.5 million meals. In 2012, those numbers increased to 94,087 households and 1.7 million meals.

“The nature of food banks is changing tremendously,” Pieper said. “We’ve never had to purchase as much as we do now.”

An estimated 14.1 percent of households in the U.S. were food insecure in 2011, according to the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Of this population, 5.7 percent had very low food security, meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

Johnson County needs

The Crisis Center of Johnson County Food Bank has seen a 10 percent increase in services from this time period a year ago. The year before saw a 19 percent increase.

In fiscal year 2012, the center registered 1,567 new families for services in the food bank; 923 new families have registered so far this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“Over the course of a year, a couple of years ago, a family would average seven visits a year,” said Sarah Benson Witry, the center’s food bank & emergency assistance director. “Now they average about nine visits.”

Meeting the needs of Iowa’s at-risk population is the immediate concern, but the long-term goal is to help stabilize families, helping them become self-sufficient. This includes providing healthy food so that poor dietary choices now don’t lead to expensive health concerns later.

The majority of food bank personnel who participated in Yale’s study reported increased efforts to provide more fresh produce to their clients, a practice Eastern Iowa food banks and organizations that help the food insecure population have adopted, too.

Last summer, HACAP partnered with the Downtown Farmers’ Market to build relationships with local vendors. It resulted in 1,500 pounds of fresh produce donated in just one day, which was immediately delivered to partner agencies. HACAP will be present at every Cedar Rapids farmers market this summer, as will Table to Table in Iowa City.

Bob Andrlik, Table to Table’s executive director, estimates that the non-profit food rescue and delivery organization received more than 10,000 pounds of food last season.

“This is food that didn’t sell, but it’s absolutely fresh,” he says. “Before, they probably took it back and put it on the compost pile, but we found vendors who’d rather donate it. As word got out, donations increased.”

Produce challenges

But not all fresh produce is eagerly accepted at food banks. It isn’t that the food isn’t appreciated, but that the clients aren’t always sure how to prepare it.

“Sometimes, when you take organic and interesting foods to food pantries, they’re a little leery, but once they learn about it and try it, they ask, ‘Do you have any more of that?’?” Andrlik said.

Witry said the Crisis Center tries to have volunteers with working knowledge of the produce available on hand to answer questions.

“It would be great if we had more of the education programs,” she said.

HACAP is stepping up its education efforts by sharing information about cleaning, storing and preparing fresh produce with the agencies it serves.

“We want to give our clients the knowledge to help them get away from the salt, the sodium, and focus on natural flavors,” she said.

This effort isn’t exclusive to produce, though. HACAP also will distribute recipes that show how clients can use the food they have access to at the food bank to prepare nutritious meals for themselves and their family.

“Instead of just opening a can of green beans or pears, we’re gathering information about what other items from the food pantry you can pair with it to make a healthy meal,” Pieper said.

Educating kids

Part of this education starts with children. HACAP’s backpack program provides a backpack of food to children at-risk of not eating when they aren’t in school. The program, which quadrupled this year, provides food for 900 backpacks each weekend to 30 schools in Linn, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Cedar, Benton and Washington counties.

According to Pieper, one in four kids in HACAP’s service area goes hungry once a week, not knowing where their next meal will come from.

Each backpack contains about 3,200 calories of nutritious, kid-friendly foods, like 100 percent juice and whole-wheat crackers.

“From the reviews that we’ve received, the parents love that their kids are getting healthier foods,” Pieper said. “They recognize these foods when they’re in the grocery store with their parents. They’ll say, ‘Oh, unsweetened applesauce. I like that.’”

Witry has witnessed teens snatching up bags of lettuce at the food bank, asking their parents if they can take it home.

“People who think this population won’t eat healthier food need to know that isn’t true,” she said.


Give food or money?

When it comes to giving a donation to the food bank, what’s better to give?

Amanda Pieper, director of the HACAP Food Reservoir, said both.

Donating money will stretch a dollar further — every dollar equals $12 buying power — but perishable and non-perishable donations help those in need immediately.

“Food donations I can get to our partner organizations right away,” she said. “We can get more food with monetary donations, but purchasing takes time.”

Sarah Benson Witry, food bank and emergency assistance director for The Crisis Center of Johnson County, also said financial donations go further, but item donations provide variety.

“I’m going to buy 20, 30 or 40 of one item, whereas someone might donate something they bought on a 2-for-1 deal, putting an item I might never purchase on our shelves,” she said.

Some of the healthy items always needed at food banks include canned tuna and chicken; low sodium soup and low fat soup; 100 percent fruit juice; whole grain crackers and cereal; whole wheat pasta; canned fruit in juice; low sodium canned vegetables; and low-fat or low-sodium pasta sauce.

HACAP can accept donations at any time. The Crisis Center accepts donations from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Call (319) 351-0128 for more information regarding donations for both sites.


Giving opportunities

• The Crisis Center of Johnson County is currently in the middle of its “Shower the Crisis Center” donation drive, collecting formula, diapers, baby food and baby wipes for its shelves.

These items are often requested by clients, but only available through donations.

This drive, which will continue through the end of April, is a rare case in which The Crisis Center is not requesting financial donations, since the agency does not currently have purchasing resources to buy baby items at reduced costs.

• Table to Table will host its “Amazing Grace” annual fundraising dinner from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on April 18. This is a come-and-go-as-you-please food tasting event that will allow patrons to sample a much larger variety of local cuisine, prepared and donated by area restaurants.

The event will be held at the Celebration Farm, located four miles north of I-80 on Hwy. 1, across from the Morse Road turnoff. Tickets are $60 per person or $400 per “van-load” of eight people or more. Reservations may be made online at www.table2table.org.

The annual dinner helps to support the agency’s work of collecting donations of wholesome foods that would otherwise be landfilled, and delivering them free of charge to other area agencies for use in local meal and food distribution programs. Since Table to Table’s inception in 1996, more than 10 million pounds of food have been collected and distributed.

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