Food for thought: Giving healthy food bank donations


food bankThis post is written by Melanie Clemmer of Fellowship of Freethought Dallas. Melanie is a registered dietician and certified diabetes educator and has kindly offered to share her expertise with us in this post.

I have noticed that in the nonbelieving community we definitely have our share of disagreements on what our diet should be like. Two things that most of us can agree on, however, are that eating healthy requires an investment of both time and money, and that many of us don’t make healthy changes in our diet until we are faced with some kind of health problem, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and/or heart disease (and sometimes we still don’t change our eating habits!). In other words, even people with a steady income can sometimes have trouble making healthy food choices, and when you are unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise on a fixed income, it can be that much harder to eat healthy. People who wind up in the aforementioned categories often turn to food pantries to supplement or provide their entire food intake. Unfortunately, many of the shelf-stable items donated to food pantries can present the following problems:

1) Many donated items are heavily geared toward carbohydrates (boxed macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper, rice, beans, ramen, etc.). Diabetes, pre-diabetes, and many other related health issues are a common problem in low-income communities. Usually people with these conditions need to control their carbohydrate intake to keep blood sugars under control, and this is very difficult to achieve if most of your diet consists of pasta, rice, and other refined flours. Plus, people usually feel like they have to eat a lot of these items to feel full, and that certainly doesn’t help with blood sugar control or weight loss.

2) When people donate shelf-stable vegetables and fruit, the items are often high in sodium and/or added sugars. The elevations in blood pressure, fluid retention, and elevated blood sugars that can result when certain individuals consume these foods can cancel out the benefits they might otherwise receive from eating fruits and vegetables.

3) Sometimes the items donated to the food pantry are a result of people cleaning out their own pantries to make their own diet healthier. (For example, a newly diagnosed person with diabetes might decide to get rid of the multiple bags of pasta sitting on the shelf.) While the desire to not waste food is certainly understandable, we do need to stop and ask ourselves about whether or not it is a good idea to give this food to someone else who may also have similar health issues.

So, when purchasing food for food pantry donations, or when considering what out of your own pantry to give away, I recommend you keep the following in mind:

1) Find out whether the food pantry you are donating to has any specific requests and try to honor them, even if they don’t always fall on the “healthy” list. That may sound like an odd point to make in a blog post about healthy food pantry donations, but we still want to make sure that we focus on helping meet the needs of the population we are serving and not make it about ourselves. So, for example, if the food pantry you are giving to has a request for bags of cornmeal/masa, but you don’t feel right about eating corn yourself, keep in mind that the pantry requested the cornmeal because that’s what their population is used to cooking with, and we are not there to force people into healthy choices. All that said, on to what foods to buy!

2) Emphasize protein foods–look for cans of tuna, salmon, sardines, chicken, or other meats that are packed in water or olive oil. Look at the list of ingredients for canned products and purchase items that have as much meat and as little “extras” added as possible. Other shelf-stable sources of animal proteins include powdered eggs and egg whites. To make sure the vegetarians are included, you can also purchase shelf-stable tofu, dried beans/legumes, canned beans with no added salt, and peanut butter and other nut butters. Unsalted nuts and seeds would also be a welcome addition to the protein category.

3) When purchasing canned vegetables, look for items that say “no added salt” or “low sodium” on the label.

4) When purchasing canned or dried fruit, look for items that say “no sugar added” on the label and check the ingredients to make sure what you are buying is actual fruit.

5) When purchasing carbohydrate foods, look for items with the least amount of processing, such as canned pumpkin with no added sugar, canned sweet potatoes/yams with no added sugar, beans/peas/whole-kernel corn with no added salt. If you purchase grains, go for items such as quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, whole-wheat pastas, and whole oats. Once again, though, check with the food pantry about who they serve. “Regular” pasta and rice will likely still be welcome if that’s what people are used to using.

6) Keep the people with food allergies in mind by buying shelf-stable dairy substitutes such as unsweetened almond milk and unsweetened coconut milk. Soy milk may also be an option for some. Rice milk usually lacks the nutritional value of almond milk, etc. Gluten-free pastas and gluten-free flours, such as almond meal, rice flour, corn flour, and gluten-free baking mixes, will also be welcome. Gluten-free cereals can also be added to the list.

7) Cooking staples such as olive oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, and dried herbs and spices can also be an addition to a healthy food pantry donation. 

8) Ask whether the food pantry has a place to keep donated perishables such as fresh meats and fruits and vegetables. Some may only take perishables at certain times because of limited refrigeration space.

9) And finally, do not be afraid to include some “fun” items, such as tea, coffee, or even sweets, especially if a holiday is approaching. Even those of us who eat healthy most of the time allow ourselves to have a treat on special occasions–the people who are served by the food pantry will probably appreciate it too!