Think Healthy When Donating Food

Food banks look for nutritional choices

Even in tough economic times, Americans find ways to support local food banks and help families in need. Unfortunately, too many of the donations lack nutritional value and can contribute to obesity.

“This is a very generous country. When called upon to give, our communities respond and we need to celebrate that fact,” said Jill Myers, cardiovascular dietitian, Spectrum Health Healthier Communities. “However, we ask that people think about the kinds of food they would want for their own families when giving. What all of our families need are healthy options.”

An increasing number of people are turning to food banks for free food to supplement what they are able to purchase for their households. The Food Bank Council of Michigan reports that state food pantry leaders are bracing for even more patrons this holiday season, due to sharp increases in the number of families facing foreclosures and unemployment.

Unfortunately, the food on the shelves is more likely to offer empty calories than nutritional value. Families who visit the food banks, however, will take whatever is available, just as they do when they shop.

“Junk food is definitely cheaper and easier to find for many families. Living on such a poor diet is leading to many health problems related to poor nutrition, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Myers. “People with access to healthy food at pantries can potentially improve their disease condition.”

Obesity is a result of poverty, both financial and nutritional. Nationally, 66.3 percent of adults are overweight of which 26.3 percent are obese (people with a body mass index or BMI over 30). At the same time, about 9.8 percent (7.7 million people) of the nation’s families were in poverty in 2006, according to the U.S. Census. The U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that 40.6 percent of these households with children experienced “food insecurity.” Food insecurity is defined as the lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times because of economic constraints.

Most high poverty communities lack grocery stores and residents depend on fast food franchises and convenience stores that offer high fat, inexpensive, non-nutritional food. Many in these areas struggle to find transportation to get to stores that offer healthy, affordable choices. Community food banks can help fill in the nutritional gaps, if they have high quality donations.

Many people who wish to donate to food banks are themselves living on tight household budgets this year. Myers pointed out that there are low cost, healthy options that can be donated.

“Many people think that healthy means organic foods which can be pricey. However, we are really talking about donating highly nutritious foods that can be found on grocery shelves right next to the less nutritional choices,” she explained.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Canned low sodium vegetables
  • Canned fruit in its own juice or light syrup
  • Whole grain pasta
  • Brown rice
  • High-fiber, low-sugar cereal
  • Dried beans
  • Powdered non-fat milk
  • Canned lean meat
  • Sugar-free drink mixes
  • Peanut butter (no trans fat)
  • Low sodium soup
  • Spaghetti sauces (plastic jars are best)
  • Spices
  • Baby/toddler food
  • Salsa
  • Oatmeal
  • Instant breakfast
  • Whole wheat flour
  • Olive and canola oil
  • Non-stick cooking spray

Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system in West Michigan that offers a full continuum of care through its seven hospitals, more than 140 service sites and Priority Health, a health plan with nearly 500,000 members. Spectrum Health’s 14,000 employees, 1,500 medical staff members and 2,000 volunteers are committed to delivering the highest quality care to those in medical need.  The organization provided $111.1 million in community benefit during its 2008 fiscal year. As a system, Spectrum Health has earned more than 100 awards during the past 10 years.