Canned Food Drives and What Families in Need REALLY Need

My daughter is a Dutch Broista and today, Valentine’s Day, she made the following announcement:

It’s Dutch Luv day! If you bring three cans of food to any Dutch Bros location you get a free coffee!!

According to “Household Food Security in the United States in 2012,” a report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, in September 2013 (Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Mark Nord, and Anita Singh, ERR-155), 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least part of the year during 2012, with 5.7 percent of them experiencing very low food security “- meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food

Food Insecurity Graphic

So, almost 6 of every 100 households in the USA wasn’t able to ensure that every family member had enough food to eath throughout the year in 2012. Almost 9 of every 100 households were not able to meet the healthy, nutritional needs of their family members, even if they had enough food to eat. In summary, nearly 15 out of every 100 households accessed or needed to access emergency food distribution sites in 2012.

The 2013 Point-In-Time Count of Homelessness in Multnomah County report presented to Portland Housing Bureau, 211info, and Multnomah County by Kristina Smock Consulting in June 2013 reported:

On a single night in January, more than 2,869 people in Multnomah County were homeless. They were families with children, veterans, women fleeing domestic violence, unaccompanied youth and disabled adults, men and women of every age.

I’m uncertain if those families and households who are experiencing homelessness are accurately represented in the USDA report of households which are food insecure. I’m sure the effort was made to include them, but I’m almost equally sure that families and people who are shelter insecure aren’t necessarily answering census questionnaires.

What I know from personal experience of having needed and received food boxes is this: the type and quality of food donated for food banks to provide families in need has diminished over the past 25 years and that despite the rising food insecurity and need to access resources, many people will not go to food banks because the food provided does not actually meet the needs of the people it’s supposed to be helping.

I think it’s great that companies and corporations run canned food drives in an effort to increase donations of food to help their local communities out. Offering access to free or reduced cost access to their services and products seems like a really great idea. However, my observation and experience has been that the people who need or want the free or reduced access can be the same people who experience food insecurities and may be “recycling” unused items received from food boxes they have received.

Foods like dried and canned beans are good protein sources, but I know a lot of people don’t know how to prepare dried beans and may not have recipes or know how to best serve these foods to their families in ways that they will eat them. So bags and cans of beans are often recycled or stack up from their lack of knowledge and inability to use what’s been donated.

Canned foods like corn, green beans, carrots, and peas are inexpensive on the grocery store shelves and because of this are often donated in overabundance to food pantries. I honestly wonder, though, how many of the households donating these canned goods actually use these as staple foods in their weekly menu planning – especially the canned peas and carrots.

I’ve had canned ravioli and sphaghetti-like foods in food boxes, as well as boxed things like Hamburger and Tuna Helper. These kinds of food are extremely high in sodium and added sugars, not to mention the fact that these items are supposed to be used WITH hamburger and tuna fish, which often are not included in the food box.

Other unhealthy and unpalatable canned food items include fruits in heavy and light syrup instead of natural juices, nut butters and jellies full of preservatives and additives. Cheap bags and boxes of white rice and pastas made from overly processed, blanched grains, then enriched with chemical nutrients are a frequent staple of food boxes as well. Ramen noodles are the cheapest and worst contributions to food banks. The noodles are high fat, high sodium, and low in nutrients.

Sometimes “juices” are donated. Often these aren’t actual juices but colored sugar water flavored with up to 10% juice. Occasionally “treats” are included like candy, chips, and baked goods or baking mixes for baked goods.

What I find truly disheartening about this is the amount of “fat shaming” and “poverty blaming” that criticizes families who are requesting or needing assistance with housing and food for being obese and unhealthy, yet the foods being donated to them are the very foods which contribute to obesity and poor health.

If you are going to donate food to help the families and households in need please keep in mind the following:

1) Easily used protein: Canned tuna, salmon, and chicken are at a premium for families who may be without the use of a stove to cook on and space to store food. These are foods which are more expensive and least accessible by families dependent on food donations and supplemental nutrition programs.

2) Whole grain and multi-grain products: There is some debate regarding the impacts of grains on health. However, the fact is that most families use grains as a staple in their diets, especially those families most at risk of hunger. Whole grain and multi-grain products are less refined and processed and contain higher nutritional values. They are also more expensive and often out of the budgets of families who may need to access donated food.

3) Fresh & frozen foods can be donated directly to the food banks and provide better nutrition than canned and boxed items. Extra lean ground beef, lean cuts of pork, stew meat, boneless, skinless chicken breasts, lean roasts and steaks are foods that food insecure families can’t afford for themselves. Find out if the local food distribution centers have freezers to store these items.Other refrigerated items like eggs, Greek yogurt, and soy, almond, & whole milks are beneficial. Fresh fruits and vegetables which aren’t overripe and badly bruised or nearing spoilage are helpful.

4) Non-food products which cannot be purchase using SNAP benefits, are more expensive, and helpful in performing daily activities like working, seeking employment, and feeling comfortable in pulbic are needed: Feminine and personal hygeine products like tampons, and pads; razors for women and men; toilet paper, paper towels, facial tissue, and moist wipes; body wash, shampoo & conditioner, anti-perspirant, toothpaste & toothbrushes; infant supplies like diapers, baby wipes. Household cleaning supplies are also needed.

One of the most disheartening and difficult things for any person, especially a parent or grandparent to do is go to an agency of strangers and admit that we are unable to provide for our family’s needs and wellbeing, to fill out an in depth questionnaire questioning our income sources, bills, and the events and choices which led to us needing to ask for the assistance, and then to receive assistance which isn’t helpful to meeting our needs then face the reports, opinions, and comments in various media from multiple souces which criticize, shame, and blame us for being poor, obese, and needing assistance in the first place. It’s dehumanizing, depressing, and humiliating.

What if those of us who can afford to donate the kinds of healthy foods we are committed to serving our own loved ones committed to donating that same kind of love and nurture to those in need? What if we stopped trying to decide if people are worthy of helping and just decide that helping others in need was worthwhile regardless of why they may be in need? What if we served people instead of statistics and populations?

Discover more truths about hunger at The Oregon Food Bankhttp://www.oregonfoodbank.org/

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10 Last Minute Valentine’s Gifts from the Dollar Store, Lanark County Food Bank, http://lanarkcountyfoodbank.ca/