My church currently supports food pantries, both by providing canned goods, cereals and other non-perishable foods to pantries and by working at the food pantries. I work at one of the food pantries we support a number of times throughout the year, and I always walk away feeling like I have met some incredible people. The food pantry is open for a few hours each Monday in the late afternoon. The clients who use the pantry come from jobs or taking care of families, and they are very polite and grateful.
While the pantry has a number of non-perishable items, and even some fresh produce and refrigerated and frozen goods, it is not an endless selection of food. Whenever I feel sorry for myself and pout over all the foods that I can no longer eat, I stop and put myself in their shoes. What if a good portion of my groceries came from a location where my choices were limited to the donations to the pantry? My health might limit what I can eat, but I still have the inventories of several grocery stores with ample food choices that fit within my diet restrictions.
Sometimes I help clients who have health issues that also create food restrictions. Some examples would be low fat, low sugar, and low sodium. Thankfully, the labels on processed products (canned goods or refrigerated goods) contain sufficient information for these restrictions (as opposed to other restrictions like low or high potassium as this information will not be required for another year or so). Of course, fresh produce and meat products might be a better option because they would likely have less fat, calories, sodium, sugar and preservatives. But these more perishable items are also harder for food pantries to keep in their inventory.
Unfortunately, some the fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meat also are often more costly to buy in grocery stores, especially if you are on a limited budget. Even if they are on sale, and can fit a budget, the expiration dates for fresh produce, meat and fish can be right around the corner. This is especially problematic for a person who lives alone and may not be able to use the products before they expire.
Happily, there are two things that may help create a solution which would provide persons on a limited budget with more fresh choices. First, some local food outlets in our area are making it possible for food pantries to “glean” produce. So what is “gleaning”? According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s website: "Gleaning is simply the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, grocers, restaurants, state/county fairs, or any other sources in order to provide it to those in need."
The DC Central kitchen notes that some of the items that they receive as part of the gleaning process would be too expensive to buy, and it also notes that: “One of the great benefits of working with farmers markets is getting fruits and veggies that are healthy.”
The USDA also points out that the process of gleaning was aided by the passage of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996. So what did this act do that makes it more attractive for food outlets to make their products available for gleaning? The website says that:
The second development I am aware of is a pilot program reported in a May 17, 2019 Washington Post article entitled “Food as medicine: Doctors are prescribing broccoli and bananas alongside beta blockers.” This article caught my eye because: (1) the concept of a prescription for fresh produce was intriguing; (2) unfortunately, my potassium restriction limits the intake of broccoli and bananas; and (3) I take beta blockers every day.
According to the article, the Produce RX program was started in the District of Columbia in April and provides 500 Medicaid patients $20 weekly vouchers for produce at a local store. The article also noted that “Hospitals and local governments across the country have been writing and filling prescriptions for healthy food in an attempt to address the root causes of diabetes, hypertension and other costly illnesses.”
This seemed like a great idea to me, but my inquisitive mind had some questions. I know that at one of the food pantry sessions, a client and I decided that the best protein choice in the refrigerator for him was plain chicken parts – not the already prepared fish sticks that were high in sodium. But his question to me was how to fix the chicken. If you are someone who has been using prepared products for a while, how to fix a chicken dish on your own may be daunting. (The same could be said for how to prepare dishes with fresh produce.) But both of us had the same thought at the same time – look for health recipes on Google!
Along the same line, the article indicated that officials in San Francisco are considering the same issues. The article noted that the officials had found that that patients were more likely to pick up food from weekly events at neighborhood clinics than at the public hospital. At the clinics, patients can choose their own meats, whole grains and vegetables, as well as watch cooking demonstrations by nutritionists — who sometimes give out cutting boards and knives.
One San Francisco health official said that “proponents of food as medicine are still trying to figure out the best way to set up such programs. “We don’t know what dose of food is enough to make a difference. *** Is food by itself enough? Or do you need the nutritionist, do you need the cooking supplies, the recipes?”
It turns out that the DC program also uses the services of a nutritionist. I think this is an excellent idea, because my heart failure has benefited from the advice of a nutritionist who can tell me what foods to avoid and what foods are appropriate for me to eat. The Post article told the story of a session between a patient and a nutritionist, where they talked about what the patient likes to eat (pasta) and what she did not like to eat (chicken and apples). They ended the session with two concrete goals: bigger vegetable sides and smaller pasta portions during dinner, and adding fresh strawberries and bananas to oatmeal for breakfast.
This should be proof to patients that eating right can be done without having to sacrifice all the things that you like – in other words, it’s doable with some tweaks and new perspectives – and of course with the vouchers to help you pay for better sources of nutrients.
I will be watching to see how these programs unfold and will be praying for their success so that people like the clients I see at the food pantry can benefit. In the meantime, what can the rest of us do to help?
Well, if you have some spare time, you may want to volunteer to help the food pantries in the area pick up products that can be gleaned from local food outlets. Or you may want to see if you can contribute money to the food pantries to help them buy some of the products that are healthier for their clients. Because you too can help produce miracles for those with chronic illnesses through better fresher produce.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.