On a recent afternoon after school in Isla Vista, Calif., 35 children invited by the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County got lessons on healthy snacks, starting with the serving size for a bag of tortilla chips (10 chips). They helped the teacher make salsa (tomatoes, avocados, cilantro, limes, garlic and red onions) and they ate the chips and dip. Then they helped themselves to fresh pears, potatoes, cabbage and carrots from boxes on a table, and each student took a big bag home.
The program, called the Kids’ Farmer’s Market Program, operates in 10 locations once a month, drawing from local Boys’ and Girls’ clubs, YMCAs and schools. It recently won the “Child Program of the Year” award from Feeding America, the nonprofit network of 205 food banks in the United States.
It’s part of a growing effort to boost the distribution of fresh fruit and vegetables to people in need and teach them about food from the ground up. (And we should note that Sara Miller McCune, the founder of Miller-McCune, is a donor of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.)
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Nationally, Feeding America aims to triple its distribution of fresh fruit and vegetables over the next five years to 1.5 billion pounds, or 40 percent of its total distribution, said Matt Knott, chief strategy officer for the Chicago-based organization. More than 6 billion pounds of fresh produce go unharvested or unsold in the U.S. yearly and could be recaptured for the poor, he said.
During the 2009-10 fiscal year, Knott said, Feeding America distributed 3.1 billion pounds of free food, an increase of 1 billion pounds over the past two years. Presently, fresh food makes up about 15 percent of national food donations to people in need. That’s a distinct change from 20 years ago, when canned and shelved food made up 100 percent of distributions to the needy.
“There’s been a lot of effort to diversify,” said Michelle Marshall, director of nutrition for Feeding America. “When people think about food banks, they think about a place where you see macaroni and cheese. We still offer that, but it’s not everything.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 15 percent of U.S. households were “food insecure” in 2009, meaning that they were sometimes forced to cut the size of meals for lack of money or skip them entirely, or they couldn’t afford a balanced diet.
The San Francisco Food Bank is No. 1 in the United States in the push to increase the distributions of fresh produce to the needy: Fresh fruits and vegetables make up nearly two-thirds of what it gives away yearly. The produce is delivered farmers market-style to schools and churches so that people can “shop with dignity,” said executive director Paul Ash. UnderFarm to Family, a statewide program that the San Francisco Food Bank pioneered 10 years ago, food banks make contracts with California growers, in some cases paying pennies per pound for packing. They don’t ask agencies whether they “want” onions, broccoli, potatoes, oranges and kiwi fruit, or whatever is being harvested in a given week.
“We think fresh produce is the best thing we provide,” Ash said. “Often, what I see at the food bank is better than what I can buy at the little food market in my neighborhood. We just push it through, and our agencies agree to take an amount of whatever we have available. The benefit for growers is that they all would rather see the food they grow used than plowed back under or fed to animals. It’s cheaper to donate than to dump.”
To help get people in the habit of eating fresh produce, the San Francisco Food Bank holds cooking classes with five to 10 people once or twice a week for six weeks.
“What we found is that the casual efforts to teach people about nutrition are not very successful,” Ash said. “It has to be in-depth. Then we tend to see a change in people’s behavior.”
In agriculturally oriented Santa Barbara County, the Foodbank ranks seventh nationally in distributing fresh produce to people in need. Fresh fruit and vegetables make up a third of its deliveries. Foodbank vans take “mobile farmers markets” of fresh produce directly into low-income neighborhoods. Food pantries are being set up for parents picking up their children after school.
“We’re trying to get away from mass distributions,” said Erik Talkin, the Foodbank’s executive director. “If you stand in the hot sun to get some free food, that doesn’t really change your life. The next day, you’re back in the same situation again. We’re looking at building more of a relationship with clients. We’re trying to get people to take responsibility for the food they’re eating.
“We can’t end poverty, but we want this organization to end hunger, which is perfectly possible in this county,” he added. “We’re saying, ‘Yes, you’re in poverty, but you can look after your health better than you are now.’”