Every day, food pantries and their partners must find new and innovative ways to get healthy food to Missourians who are food insecure. The Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at the University of Missouri, who collaborates with these pantries, has collected some of their best ideas and is sharing them with all in a new print and online resource.
“Healthy Shelves,” just published, showcases techniques and tips for groups seeking to add a stronger stream of healthy food options to food pantry customers, not only to increase the amount of food available but to improve overall health. The information is being distributed to pantries and others via print, CD-ROM and at foodsecurity.missouri.edu.
The techniques range from forming partnerships with farmers markets, starting community gardens and networking with local partners to host hands-on cooking demonstrations. It also details how to improve food drive results, handle perishables safely and provide vegetable gardening resources directly to food pantry customers.
“Healthy Shelves” highlights nutrition improvement strategies in four different areas – Food Availability and Access, Food Consumption, Food Pantry Capacity and Development, and Food Acquisition and Distribution. It also spotlights the work of the people and organizations putting the best practices in place.
Communicating Programs Proven to Work
“We’re looking to get these proven and practical ideas into the hands of food pantry organizers and their community partners,” said Bill McKelvey, project coordinator for the center. “Not all of the ideas and resources will be appropriate for every food pantry, but each pantry can pick and choose from these ideas that can best improve their program.”
Food pantries are a safety net for thousands of Missouri households, McKelvey said. About one in six Missourians are food insecure in some way – the number increases to one in five when children or an elderly person are in the household. Annually, Missouri’s food banks distribute more than 90 million pounds of food to hungry Missourians through a network of more than 1,500 pantries, shelters and kitchens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2014 reported that Missouri has the highest rate of increase in very low food security over the past ten years.
McKelvey said research by the center examined the health status of food pantry customers in central and northeast Missouri and found that clients were disproportionately affected by diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. They are also more likely to be obese, as compared to the Missouri average.
“Poor health is one cost of food insecurity,” McKelvey said. “In Missouri, just under 10 percent of Missourians are coping with diabetes, yet that number jumps to 23 percent for people who use food pantries. High blood pressure increases from 32 percent of the general population to more than 50 percent for food pantry clients.”
“Poor health and the high prevalence of chronic disease create multiple barriers and hardships for food pantry customers and their families,” McKelvey said. “People living with chronic illness can be significantly limited in their daily activities. This in turn leads to missed educational opportunities and employment opportunities and creates a downward spiral for people.”
Food Insecurity, a National Problem
There are about 40,000 food pantries in the U.S., and they acquire food through various sources and distribute them to people who face uncertainties about having enough food. Most food pantries get their food from a regional food bank. Most food banks source their food largely from national food producers, manufacturers, and distributers coordinated by Feeding America, but also through local food drives, the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, and grocery stores.
According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of charitable food providers, 46.5 million people are served through their partner hunger relief agencies each year. This includes 12 million children and 7 million seniors.
McKelvey said addressing the issue of poor health among food pantry customers is a challenging and important issue for communities wanting to not only feed people but improve their lives. “We believe it is vital to engage a multitude of partners to build the capacity of local food pantries – to help them increase sources of healthy food and develop programs and policies to improve the health of families they serve.”
The Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security was established in 2004 by the MU Office of the Provost and the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Team members include faculty in rural sociology, sociology, geography, public affairs and nutritional sciences. The center also researches and publishes the Missouri Hunger Atlas, a survey of food insecurity in all of Missouri’s 114 counties.
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Bill McKelvey coordinates Grow Well Missouri, a project designed to get healthy food to food pantry customers through home and community gardening.