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Can you find healthy food at a food pantry?

Not long ago, we had a conversation on the Kitchen Stewardship Facebook page about whether food stamps (actually called SNAP benefits) should be used for non-essentials, specifically soda.

The article I shared was about a statistic that soda is purchased more than any other category of food with SNAP benefits. I get the impression that not everyone who commented had clicked over or read the full article.

Surprise, surprise, it’s the internet.

But nonetheless, the conversation was pretty fascinating. Opinions ranged from indignation that anyone would even assume that they could regulate what is purchased with SNAP benefits, and lots of talk about how the little luxuries shouldn’t be taken away just because someone is poor.

Then there were others who were equally offended that their tax dollars were going to pay for sugar water that’s causing disease and is completely unnecessary for health.

Those in between claimed that perhaps soda pop is necessary for health as calories to fill up a belly, or even that someone who’s pregnant might just need some ginger ale to help calm her tummy. As far as I’m concerned, those are outliers and not even holding weight in the conversation, but interesting nonetheless to see the range of ideas.

Looking for Healthy Options at a Food Pantry

When I was given the opportunity to visit a local food pantry as part of the Meijer Simply Give fundraising for the LPGA tournament, I jumped at the chance. Last year my kids and I visited our local Buist Community Assistance Center, and we were blown away by how much fresh nutritious food was available. The infrastructure there is truly exemplary and I’ve never heard of anything like it at a food pantry.

Potential or Pop: What's the Future of Food Pantries?

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Meijer. The opinions and text are all mine.

That in mind, I went in curious but pessimistic to this other food center at St. Alphonsus Church. I know that most food pantries have their hands tied by the limitation of stocking only non-perishable foods, which are often far less nutritious. Food pantries have quite a reputation for serving the poor non-nutritious food.

I also went in with a bit of an agenda because I really wanted to hear what people there thought about this soda pop conversation.

During the visit, I was definitely pleasantly surprised because the director, Michelle Hatfield, really is on a mission to include more healthy food in the offerings for their “neighbors,” as the clients at the center are called.

In the last couple of years, they have been able to purchase an industrial size refrigerator and freezer as well as coolers to serve some fresh food.

St Alphonsus Food Center

And they use fundraising dollars like those from the Simply Give program to shop at Meijer or Aldi for essentials. Michelle quite quickly assured me that she would never purchase soda with those dollars, but yet they did have it in stock.

The Feeding America program is able to sell reclaimed food to food pantries for very small amounts, something like maybe 20 cents a pound.

So for that, picking up some soda doesn’t seem like such a bad allocation of funds.

St Alphonsus Food Center Tour with Hank Meijer, Michelle Hatfield, and Jacqueline and Chris from the LPGA

St. Alphonsus Food Center Serves the Poor; a Small Place Helping in a Big Way

During my tour with Hank Meijer, co-chairman and CEO of the Meijer Corporation, and Jacqueline and Chris, our two LGPA players, we got to see everything in a very short time. It’s a small center, located in former classrooms at the Catholic School at St. Alphonsus which used to have 800 students 50 years ago and now has been combined with four other churches into one small Catholic school.

The St. Alphonsus Food Center serves about 1000 neighbors per month and over six tons of food. Their mission is to be an emergency food pantry, basically providing two or three days worth of food and two outfits for each neighbor, who are only allowed to visit once a month. It’s definitely only a supplementation to whatever SNAP can provide, if people even qualify officially for assistance.

The Food Center has impressive partnerships with Kids Food Basket, an organization my kids and I love to volunteer at, Panera Bread to get leftover bread, and even organizations that help collect diapers.

By the way, if you donate diapers try to buy a size six because no one really wants to donate the bigger sizes but they are in great demand.

St Alphonsus Food Center Tour

Michelle told us almost right away as we were turning around a corner where cans were stacked to the ceiling and toward large boxes of bagged cereal that her mission as the director of the center was to get to a place where they can provide more nutritious food. She specifically noted that they are striving to provide more fresh produce, gluten-free, low sodium, and low sugar options. My ears perked up and I was riding on her train the rest of the way through the tour!

The back storeroom at the pantry is small but well stocked with non-perishable foods. But of course, unfortunately, that includes a lot of refined flours and highly processed options.

I noticed that in the free store, not all the shelves were even fully stocked. And there’s a whole section down the center of empty shelves where only shopping carts were housed. That made me sad because there’s so much potential there.

St Alphonsus Food Center

And what’s exciting is that in our conversation later, I learned that Michelle completely agrees and has some big ideas for that center aisle.

Near the end of the tour, which again is only maybe a 30’x 30? room, we came upon the beverages. As soon as I saw the soda pop I began snapping pictures because I knew this was my focus.

It’s interesting to note that finally, the pendulum of portion size is trending in the right direction, back toward those eight-ounce servings that we used to see in the 1950’s and away from the 48-ounce super sized monstrosities that are so popular now!

St Alphonsus Food Center Shelves

So even though these are the mini size cans, are they appropriate for a food pantry? Should people on assistance be able to use their SNAP benefits to purchase non-nutritious food of any kind, but most specifically soda pop?

Let’s explore this a little bit in three parts.

Should Soda be Available at a Food Pantry?

When I brought up the topic of soda with our tour group, everyone became visibly uncomfortable.

I’m sure that’s because as Hank Meijer said, it’s a “tough balance.” One person pointed out that “it is client choice,” and of course, the center does “have to take advantage of what’s donated.”

But I think Michelle has the right idea. There’s no easy solution to this question, or in general, the problem of Americans drinking far too many sugars. But I believe we can tackle it in all populations, both the economically depressed and the wealthy, in a three-part process:

  • education
  • experience
  • entertainment

1. Is Education the Solution When it Comes to Processed Foods for the Poor?

What impressed me the most about the St. Alphonsus Food Center and Michelle Hatfield’s direction of the program is that she is really focusing on the education factor. Currently, the center is able to provide creative cooking classes through the Y where experts come in and cook healthy food with the neighbors who come to the center.

The neighbors are able to take that food home along with a cookbook, and right on site they learn valuable knowledge like knife skills so that they can unlock that produce section just like I always talk about in my online kids cooking lessons when we are trying to build healthy eating habits in our young generation.

The center also is about to offer a diabetes education class, as well as free exercise classes. I am certain that education is the key to helping people eat right, not government regulation. Regulation will never solve the problem of people’s habits and what people want to eat and are drawn to.

On the other hand, education is an uphill battle not only because it’s very difficult to get people to come to classes, even if they’re free, since time is a valuable commodity no matter how much money you have. But also it’s difficult for education to undo years of bad habits that have been created in our American sugar-hungry culture.

2. People Need to Have Good Experiences with Healthy Food

Experience is another vital key to helping any person, no matter their socioeconomic status, enjoy the value of healthy food. People tend to have a psychological block sometimes when it comes to anything new, but especially something new that may have been misaligned by the culture as being not so tasty or not so fun.

If you’ve never tasted bok choy or eggplant, it’s not something you’re going to just pick up off the shelf, even if you have been to a class that told you it was healthy. It’s so important to have that personal experience — and have it be a positive one.

That’s why I really loved that the food center is offering these creative cooking classes that include an opportunity to experience the actual food. Michelle also has a vision for that center section that’s all empty right now to be used for live cooking stations that can be happening during the shopping hours, and neighbors can taste foods right then and there.

I said, “Just like Costco” and she smiled.

Exactly, Costco knows the value of an experience. Experiencing the food helps people to spend their money at Costco. When it comes to people at a free store, experiencing a food along with a little education on how to make it can help people choose the healthier options that Michelle is so anxious to stock.

The goal of St. Alphonsus Food Center is to be a “health and wellness hub,” and my prayer is that they achieve that goal. It’s so needed in our society. The parish priest, Father Pat, pointed out that they also have St. Catherine’s Healthcare just around the corner in the same building (what a great use of an empty school building), and over there, the poor can receive health education and services as well, which includes nutrition.

The Food Center has already received a small grant from the Catholic Diocese for healthy food programming, and along with the generous funding from Meijer’s spring Simply Give campaign, which has been running three times a year since 2008, the center will be well on its way to achieving that mission.

Although Michelle and I talked at length about the need for education and experience and how important that is, I also think that entertainment comes into play.

3. Why Food Should Not be Connected to Entertainment

In that Facebook conversation, so many people discussed the restriction of those “little luxuries” and maintained that the poor should have the right to celebrate for a birthday party just as much as someone who has plenty of money to their name.

So what needs to be changed? Is it access to soda pop through SNAP, which actually stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program?” Or is there a whole mindset that is wrong in American culture?

I would say that the latter is the problem – that in our culture, we equate entertainment with food. We equate celebration with food, and we equate food that is maybe not so healthy as being a “luxury” that all people deserve the privilege of having.

I would like to see a mindset shift when it comes to entertainment — so that we can celebrate with healthy food, or celebrate with NO food and begin to separate the emotions from eating.

We need to teach our children and our citizens of all economic statuses that it’s important to see food as nourishment and that our choices about what we put into our mouths affect the way we fuel our day and the way we feel. And it doesn’t have to just be, “I’m stressed out and I need comfort food.”

The Problem of Feeding the Poor Healthy Food is Even More Complicated

Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, all the education and experience in the world, even a cultural shift in the connection between entertainment and nourishment may not help because there are serious logistical limitations when it comes to people who don’t have enough money to buy food for themselves.

Many neighbors at St. Alphonsus Food Center live in a hotel with no way to cook their food other than perhaps a microwave, and they might not have a refrigerator to store fresh food. Some of the neighbors are also completely homeless, and they can’t even do anything with ramen noodles or microwavable mac and cheese. The center does see that convenience foods like mac and cheese are the fastest to go, probably because of that experience piece. It’s what people are familiar with, and it’s what they know how to make (the education piece coming back in).

There will always be limitations in education, in cooking facilities, and in refrigeration for people who are down on their luck.

So our question as a society is, “Do we want to regulate access to sugar water or do we want to help them get refrigerators, stoves, cooking knowledge, and, most importantly, self-sufficiency.” That’s a word that Michelle used more than any other – that we need to help our neighbors be independent and self-sufficient.

It’s not about coming to a food pantry to get a few days of food and worrying what goes into the cart. It’s about creating an opportunity for these neighbors to get back on their feet and stay there, and I’m proud to be involved with both St. Alphonsus Food Center and Meijer’s Simply Give program to support all these neighbors in their efforts to get back to where they need to be to take care of themselves.

I encourage you to give to your local food pantry, either in time, money, or food donations. Here are a few ideas for non-perishable food that is healthy, with printable recipes to encourage education!

Have you ever donated healthy food to a pantry? Do you think it was used?

Healthy Food Choices for the Poor - No Simple Answer


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