Food banks across the state are making efforts to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables.
By Minali Nigam
In North Carolina, one in six adults and one in five children under the age of 18 has inadequate access to food, according to statistics released by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks.
That puts North Carolina atop the list for “food insecurity” in the United States.
Enter food banks, which fill that need.
“Food banks started 30 years ago … becoming, in essence, the safety net,” said Alan Briggs, Executive Director of the N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks.
Currently, food banks across the state serve about 100,000 meals a week, but the options aren’t always the most nutritious. A bag of groceries from a food bank often contains canned vegetables and beans, processed meals and government-surplus goods, such as peanut butter and cheese.
“One of the things that really has become obvious to us and is causing a real shift in how food banks work is recognizing that oftentimes those shelf-stable foods are not the healthiest foods,” Briggs said. “Oftentimes, they are high in sodium, fat … .”
Food banks are now looking for alternatives.
“We’re working with farmers and growers throughout state to distribute larger amounts of fresh produce,” he said.
A need for healthy options
Getting healthy food in a food insecure population is financially challenging, Briggs explained.
“A large pizza and two liters of orange soda is a cheaper way to fill your family’s stomachs than fresh produce and healthier grains,” he said.
Food banks get about 50 to 60 percent of their supplies from retailers such as Walmart, Target, Harris Teeter, Lowe’s and Kroger, Briggs said, but for the past year, however, his organization has been working more directly with farmers.
“We’ve already sourced eight million pounds, in less than a year, of agricultural products that are primarily more shelf-stable,” said Briggs.
Those items include potatoes, sweet potatoes and cabbage. Briggs said he hopes the state initiative will expand to refrigerated food, but added, “It takes a lot of money and infrastructure to handle higher quality of food more efficiently.”
Getting fresh produce
“One of the ways to get high quality food in a less expensive way to people who need it… could be farm-to-preschool initiatives or farm-to-hospital or farm-to-nursing home kind of efforts,” said Adam Zolotor, head of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine. He said the focus is shifting from just filling bellies to filing them with higher quality calories.
Part of that effort is moving toward improving access to healthy food with public resources. One example Zolotor cited was the Urban Ministries of Wake County.
“They’re trying to remake their image from a food bank to that of a grocery where people get high quality food at no cost, or at a markedly reduced cost,” he said.
Food banks are also asking for different kinds of donations.
“We’re becoming more conscious, telling donors the types of food we need, now requesting whole grain pastas, rice as opposed to pre-packaged or processed foods,” said Briggs. “We’re asking donors to donate money rather than food.”
He said food banks can leverage each dollar into four or five more.
Donations of cash, Briggs said, allow food banks to increase variety and to spend money on things such as transportation to deliver crops from farms, which would otherwise be “left in the field.”
Food as medicine
About 5 million North Carolina adults, about half of the population, are obese or overweight, while almost 827,000 people in the state reported being diagnosed with diabetes in 2014, according to data compiled by North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
“Nutrition is medicine,” Briggs said. “It adds to chronic illnesses, which costs society a great deal of money.”
The Institute of Medicine has been exploring these ideas as well. Zolotor said a meeting he hosted last year on food policy and health made him realize that food policy can conflict with health goals.
“If you try and make high quality food too cheap then that affects farmers who therefore have problems with sustainability and it impacts economic development,” he said. “If you shortcut regulation, even though it may happen rarely, you may have more problems with foodborne diseases.”
“There was no, sort of, easy solution.”