Supplementing the Food Budget with Food Banks and Food Pantries

Posted on by Daranee Yongpradit

With the recent economic recession and resulting high rates of unemployment and poverty, food insecurity has become a major public health concern in America. One out of six households in the United States (14.5%) is experiencing food insecurity, defined as having limited availability or access to adequate and safe foods. With enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, at an all-time high (1 in 7 Americans), ensuring that all Americans have an adequate supply of healthy food must be a priority for our nation. Supporting food banks means taking part in fighting hunger and trying to offer nutritious options for people in need.

A common misconception is that hunger in America is only found among low-income families living in small rural communities. In fact, hunger is a widespread reality for millions of working adults, seniors and children who often skip meals or go without food for days due to insufficient income. The growing number of visitors to food banks indicates a rise in hunger and especially for SNAP recipients, it suggests that benefit amounts are inadequate.

Within the Feeding America network of more than 200 food banks, between 2006 and 2010 there was a 46% increase in the number of visitors using these sites, which mirrors the growth in SNAP participation as well. Food pantries have become places to eat for college students ineligible for SNAP, and can currently be found at 25 universities and colleges across the country such as Michigan State and the University of Georgia. These organizations provide nourishment for the many individuals with incomes that make them ineligible to receive SNAP benefits, but still require food assistance as well as SNAP recipients who run out of benefits by the end of the month.

Through the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which uses federal funding to provide commodity foods (i.e., beans, juice, and canned fruits), food banks supplement their private food donations for distribution. In order to encourage the consumption of healthy food, food banks have expanded their role to include nutrition education (offering workshops and cooking demonstrations), supporting local, sustainable agriculture, and soliciting nutritious food donations. However, some challenges still faced by these organizations are the dual burden of increased demand and a declining food supply, and balancing unhealthy food donations with providing fresh produce to clients. The Greater Chicago Food Depository has addressed this issue by refusing to accept donations of candy, chips and soda and asks donors to question the nutritional content of their food contributions.

Creative approaches such as gleaning (the act of returning to a field that was previously harvested and gathering any usable produce that has been left behind) and working with farmer’s markets to collect leftover produce are two techniques being used to address food waste while also helping food banks provide healthier options. Additionally, the Emergency Food Network in Washington operates the Cannery Project, which sends canned and repackaged fresh or frozen food to local food banks, thereby increasing the shelf life of otherwise perishable goods and reducing the purchase of canned food.

Sometimes commercial retailers and factories choose to not market perfectly edible food for cosmetic reasons. The food is bruised, has an odd size or shape, or is discolored, and the rejected produce usually ends up at landfills. As part of the Society of St. Andrew, a multi-state, nationwide organization, the Potato and Produce Project instead salvages this nutritious produce and sends it to food banks, food pantries, and other anti-hunger organizations for distribution to the people experiencing food insecurity. In 2010, 32 states benefited from the 28.1 million pounds of produce saved through this initiative.

The initiatives mentioned here are some of the innovative approaches across the country doing work to alleviate hunger while also promoting healthier nutrition in America. Food insecurity will not be solved by these initiatives alone, but together along with the efforts at food banks and food pantries they are definitely working to address the problem.


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