Nourishing our Neighbors: Challenging the Status Quo at Food Pantries

By Patrick Mateer, Bonner Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Farmer Foodshare POP Market Program Assistant

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            Last year, local urgent hunger agencies supplied over 160,000 Triangle residents below the poverty line with food according to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC.  These community kitchens and food pantries provide an essential service to the community by supplying individuals with food they might not get anywhere else. Urgent hunger agencies deserve more appreciation for the absolutely necessary service they provide, but it’s crucial that we provide these agencies with the resources and inspiration to do better. A majority of North Carolina pantries distribute non-perishable processed foods. These processed foods can be damaging to health, particularly when they are a client’s sole source of food. Pantries must transition to supply their clients with a diet that is complete in nutrition and includes a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Luckily, there is a readily available supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in North Carolina communities. There is also a simple, community-based way to link the farm food with community need through Farmer Foodshare and North Carolina Farmers’ Markets.   

    

 Agency Clients Need Variety: Seasonal and Fresh Options

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Today pantries are distributing food that can cause health risks for clients who use non-perishable processed food as a basis for every day eating. Recent analysis of a representative pantry’s food showed they distributed enough calories for an individual to eat for about fifteen days. The items were overall low in fat, low in sugar, and low in cholesterol, however high in sodium. Specifically the food package contained almost fifty thousand mg of sodium, between 30% to 50% more than the FDA’s individual daily recommended intake of 2,000-2,400 mg. Research from University of California Berkeley suggests that healthy sodium intake should be even lower, 1,500 mg of sodium, meaning pantries give out over 100% of a healthy level of salt.  High sodium diets lead to more than just hypertension. Another recent article from UC Berkeley connects high sodium to not just heart disease and stroke, but also kidney failure, weak bones due to low calcium, and cancer of the stomach and colon.

Work has already started to reduce sodium levels. Many groups request low sodium versions of products, but pantries cannot always choose what they receive. The best way to guarantee a healthy diet of clients is to make a transition to serving a majority of healthy fresh vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruit are essential to a healthy diet – even one more serving a day can help, according to some studies. The World Health Organization and the USDA recommend 5 servings or 2-3 cups per day of fresh vegetables alone.

Dr. Stephen DeCherney, endocrinologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine says “fresh foods are preferable to processed foods for a number of reasons. As we have discovered, to create long shelf life artificial preservatives are added. These have unknown effects on humans. Interestingly there is some early data suggesting that fresh canned or frozen vegetables are equally as nutritious as fresh. The real, albeit subtle issue here, however, is variety. There is no question that a diet that varies foods is healthier than one in which the same foods are consumed day after day. Food fresh from the farm varies by day, week, month and season. There is also the issue of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones in our food. Speaking as an endocrinologist, I can honestly state that I am very worried about these.” 

Local Farms and Farmers Markets Can Help

Fortunately, North Carolina is the perfect state for pantries to make the switch happen. We support over 52,000 farms, the second highest on the east coast. This makes it easy for food to be supplied locally with a very low carbon footprint. Spending money locally will continue to grow North Carolina’s economy by keeping money in our state.  Finally, food that is “just picked” will definitely taste superior to food that’s “jet lagged”, having been shipped for a week.

The Conservation Trust for North Carolina notes that we all rely on North Carolina’s number one industry, agriculture, for an abundant supply of fresh and local foods and fiber. Unfortunately, North Carolina has been a national leader in the loss of farmland. From 2010 to 2011, North Carolina lost 1,000 farms and 100,000 acres of farmland. This loss of prime farmland to development poses a significant threat to agriculture’s long-term viability, including its economic impact of $71 billion per year (including $6 billion from forestry) and 120,000 jobs. It also poses a threat to our food security and contributes to environmental degradation and climate change.

“Farmer Foodshare recognizes that small local farms and their healthy produce are essential to healthy communities, soils, and minds and bodies,” says Darin Knapp, UNC Associate Professor of Psychiatry and “Farmer D” of RambleRill Farm in Hillsborough North Carolina. “It is obvious they understand that such farms and the non-profit partnering agencies they and Farmer Foodshare work with are essential for putting those factors together well enough to sustain both farms and those in need. Most importantly, they clearly understand that the need (often hidden from view) is now, today, and cannot wait to be addressed tomorrow.  Hunger is real, local and inadequately addressed, but Farmer Foodshare knows how to make the necessary connections to address both hunger and to support local farms.”

Conclusion

Many individuals find the pantry as an important food source during times of trouble.  Misfortune should not lead to heart disease, stroke, or kidney failure. Transition will not be an easy task, but it is possible for pantries to serve fresh vegetables while simultaneously teaching clients to making healthier diet choices. Our community must realize the interconnected social justice issue of hunger, health, and poverty; we cannot continue to condemn our local poor to avoidable health problems and in doing so, to make it harder to recover from poverty.

 

Sources:

How to shake the salt habit. University of California, Berkeley, wellness letter 26.7 01 Apr 2010: 4. Health Letter Associates. 05 Sep 2013.

Salt-beyond hypertension" More reasons to shake the habit.. University of California, Berkeley, wellness letter 27.9 01 Jun 2011: 5. Health Letter Associates. 05 Sep 2013.

Khaw KT, Bingham S, Welch A et al. Relation between plasma ascorbic acid and mortality in men and women in EPIC-Norfolk prospective study: a prospective population study. European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. Lancet 2001; 357: 657-63.

Interviews with Dr. Stephen DeCherney, UNC School of Medicine and Dr. Darin Knapp, UNC School of Medicine and Farmer (September 2013)

Conservation Trust for North Carolina (http://www.ctnc.org/land-trusts/statewide-land-protection-programs/farmland-protection/)