Crafting healthier options at the food pantry

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The Shelby County Food Pantry distributes about 37,000 pounds of food every month to food-insecure families. (Photo by Scarlett Robertson/KBIA)
About the author
Scarlett Robertson is a reporter for KBIA in Columbia, Mo.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon in September, about 30 cars surround the Shelby County food pantry in Shelbina, Mo. Couples, neighbors, women with small children — they’re all here for their monthly allotment of food.

Christena Morgan is part of the crowd. The shy 23-year-old just moved to the area with her husband and five kids. This is only the second time she’s come to this pantry, but she already knows the drill, which started early this morning when she stopped in to get her number.

“You come back later on in the day, usually around 3, and that’s when everybody starts getting here and they call your number off of a bullhorn and then you go in and they already have your food ready to put in your boxes into your van. Today my number’s 65,” she said.

But there’s more going on here than a food pick-up. This pantry is participating in the University of Missouri’s Food Pantry Nutrition Project, which aims to get healthy foods to everyone, not just those who have the financial means.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project has surveyed food pantry clients throughout central and northeast Missouri and is applying a “nutrition intervention approach” to nine pantries across the state. The effort involves everything from working with farmers who might donate produce to holding targeted food drives to educating food pantry clients. The outcomes will then be compared with eight control pantries in the region.

“We’re not necessarily wanting to change the whole system overnight, but we’re trying to kind of nudge people in a more healthy direction,” said project coordinator Bill McKelvey. “And so if we can introduce more healthy foods along with some nutrition education around preparing those foods then we can kind of swing the pendulum back toward more healthy foods over time.”

One aspect of the project is trying to bring in nutritious food that clients will actually eat, said Jennifer Schnell, a research associate with the project. And that takes special strategies.

Numbers in need: Missouri

  • The USDA reports 139,300 people in Missouri receive emergency food assistance in any given week and 75 percent of those receiving food are below the federal poverty line.
  • 2009 data from Feeding America found that 16.8 percent of Missourians -- 990,770 people -- are food insecure.
  • The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri serves 18,000 square miles of the state and distributes more than 27 million pounds of food to 135 agencies and 126 schools throughout 32 counties.    

Through her research, which includes interviews with more than 1,000 food pantry clients, Schnell discovered that healthy food was going to waste because no one knew how to cook it. So she came up with recipes based on each month’s food offerings. Recipes that are nutritional, but don’t require a lot of preparation or cooking know-how.

When clients at the Shelby County food pantry come in to get their number they’re given a newsletter that contains a handful of recipes: a chicken and broccoli dish, bean burritos, and rice pudding.

But just providing the recipes doesn’t lead to acceptance.

While at the food bank, Morgan (No. 65) heard about the healthy recipes, but once she got home, they were all but forgotten.

 “I wasn’t really interested in the recipes that they had on there, nothing really that the kids would eat,” Morgan said. “I had some tuna fish and we got a bag of chips so I’m going to use those. I have some Velveeta packets so I’m going to make homemade tuna casserole.”

She added peas to the casserole for a vegetable.

“I believe it’s healthy so long as you use healthy things and mix it together it’s still going to be healthy food,” she said. “The only thing that’s not healthy in this would be the potato chips and there’s not enough in that to be any harm to anybody, just enough to give it a little flavor.”

The meal was a hit with her seven kids. The table fell silent except for echoes of appreciation: “it’s sooo good…this is delicious…mmm-mmm.”

Schnell, at the university, said the project’s ultimate goal is to reduce obesity in the low-income population. Some studies have associated food insecurity with obesity. And along with obesity is a whole host of health-related problems including diabetes, heart disease — even certain kinds of cancers.

Nutrition expert Vera Massey has worked with mid-Missourians who have limited access to fresh, healthy food. She said nutrition improvements are hard to come by — and not just for people on low incomes.

“I think that there’s an ideal situation where we’re consuming a wide variety of foods and certain amounts are going to get the maximum nutritional value and I would venture to say that very few people are achieving that,” she said. “I think it’s quite possible that regardless of your socioeconomic level you could not be eating healthy foods. Cost is not always the factor that determines why we choose the foods that we do.”

Massey said eating habits, while influenced by things like availability and resources, are often established early in life. In other words, we eat what we know and what we like.

Another obstacle for the food pantry project is that food from a pantry typically represents only 5 percent to 10 percent of an individual’s monthly food consumption, said Sandy Rikoon, an MU sociology professor and the lead principle investigator on the project.

“Our hope is that some of the lessons that they learn through being at the food pantries will translate into food purchasing behaviors in general,” he said.

When the study concludes in 2013, the researchers plan on compiling their findings into a guide and presenting it to food banks. Ultimately the data will feed into a larger study out of MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security surveying the health and socioeconomic characteristics of pantry users in 32 counties throughout the region.