3 things food banks really want

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Thai Nguyen hauled 15 turkeys through a market in north Denver. The founder of the nonprofit Kaizen Food Share was on a last-minute shopping spree for her nonprofit’s food program, which planned to deliver holiday meals to local elders who had requested turkey dinners.

Kaizen Food Share is part of a network of food distribution programs helping tens of millions of Americans across the country. These programs need to expand even more than in recent years as the number of people experiencing food insecurity has risen, according to recent federal data. Analysis by the USDA showed that 44 million people in the US – including 13 million children – had trouble getting enough food in 2022. Overall, the nation’s food insecurity has seen a 31% increase since 2021 and is the highest since 2014, the agency said.

This spike in food insecurity comes as pandemic-era federal programs, such as the America’s Rescue Plan child tax credit and SNAP emergency distributions, have ended or are being scaled back. When inflation spikes in 2021-2022, the timing couldn’t be worse for millions of families already struggling with the loss of federal aid on top of rising housing and transportation costs, said Claire Babineau-Fontaineau, CEO of Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks that serve tens of millions of Americans each year. Although inflation has eased and unemployment remains at historic lows, she said many households still struggle to afford food.

READ MORE: Why economists say falling inflation isn’t enough to ease tensions around the US economy

“Hunger is a symptom of poverty. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Babineau-Fontaineau said. “You actually have more people experiencing hunger at higher income levels than before. So it takes more money to get by now than there is.”

Here are some tips from Babineaux-Fontenot and others who work on food insecurity about how you can help food banks and food drives as they serve growing numbers of people in need.

Money stretches further than boxes

Food banks can turn $1 into 10 meals, Babineau-Fontaineau said. This purchasing power speaks to the way food banks have had to adapt, not only to meet the needs of their clients, but also to operate.

Volunteering and donating money are “the biggest ways people can support” their local food banks, said Erin Pulling, CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies, the nation’s second-largest food bank.

Food that used to be competitively sourced and contracted now makes up a larger portion of what food banks distribute to clients, and they need to use those channels more often, Pulling said. Decades ago, she said her organization didn’t buy food. Today, the food bank buys about a third of its food supply.

“The main reason is due to increased food costs. It’s the same struggle that food banks are currently facing across the country — the dollars just don’t stretch as far,” Feeding Colorado, an association of five Feeding America food banks in the state, said in a statement to PBS NewsHour.

To help close that gap, food banks have lobbied Congress to increase funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, in the next farm bill.

“We can get food for pennies on the dollar compared to what you or I can buy at the grocery store,” Pulling said.

Volunteers pack bags of white rice to be distributed to Hunger Relief Partners through the Rocky Mountain Culturally Responsive Food Initiative’s food bank. Photo courtesy of Food Bank of the Rockies

If you are giving food, choose nutritious foods that you would like

Babineaux-Fontenot admits that sometimes people are “more inclined to pursue food.” In those cases, consider donating “the kinds of food you probably want,” she recommended.

When the Rocky Mountain Food Bank was founded nearly five decades ago, Pulling said the model was to keep food out of landfills, “get it to food pantries and get it to people in need. There was really no focus on nutrition.

Now there is a greater demand for nutritious food. In terms of nutritional density, Babineaux-Fontenot said peanut butter “is pretty big.” She added that fresh and frozen produce, protein, dairy and frozen foods contribute a lot to people’s needs.

“I don’t suppose I’m in a better position to make decisions for families experiencing hunger than families experiencing hunger,” she said.

Learn about the specific needs of your community

The refugee-led Kaizen Food Share team strives to be as culturally responsive as possible to the 1,200 families it serves, Nguyen said. On their intake forms, she said they ask new households, “What types of food would you like us to offer if we have funding available?”

Families enter the program from nearly two dozen countries, including parts of Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, Nguyen said, as well as local communities in and around Denver. The food share is working with the Food Bank of the Rockies to try to fulfill the requests.

Many of these families are going through “the most difficult time of their lives,” Pulling said. “Showing them a food they’re familiar with has such power.”

Staff have learned lessons along the way. For example, when serving a predominantly Ethiopian customer base, Pulling said she learned there was virtually no demand for USDA cheese. For the Afghan refugee community, workers sought out certain types of rice, beans and tea that are often requested during intake sessions with new families.

“It goes back to providing dignity and reducing shame,” Nguyen said. Based on that premise, she said, sharing food instills “solidarity and reciprocity,” in part because many of the workers have had experiences when it comes to insecurity.

“We try to listen to community members and what they want to do,” Nguyen said.

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