PHOENIX (AP) — A food pantry in Chandler is asking donors to think before they drop off food, hoping they will bring nutrient-dense, non-perishable foods such as brown rice and beans instead of highly processed items to help the Valley's hungry families.
The people at Matthew's Crossing, a Chandler food pantry, and other Valley food banks are trying to educate donors to emphasize "super foods" when making a donation.
Items such as brown rice, whole-grain pasta, tuna or chicken canned in water instead of oil, and whole-grain oats and cereals are healthier options for those on the receiving end of the meals.
Better choices can benefit not only the recipients but also the community by reducing diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, which all can be affected by diet, food-bank employees say.
"We're learning more about the vital role that food banks can have in fighting the obesity epidemic," Heather Heimsoth, director of development for Matthew's Crossing, said. "We could help by giving out super foods, nutrient-dense foods, and helping that population we serve with making wiser choices and cooking smarter and healthier."
Heimsoth also points out that it does not have to be more expensive to donate better food.
"When you look at some of the different options of things you could buy that are nutrient-dense food vs. the processed foods there are cost-saving options for you, you can actually get more for your money when you choose some of these options," Heimsoth said. "It's an educational role on our part to be able to share that with the community and educate folks."
As examples, Heimsoth said that substituting rolled oats purchased in bulk could provide more servings for the same amount of money as prepackaged instant oatmeal. Buying dried black or garbanzo beans would provide more meals than canned refried beans, and a pound of brown rice could provide more food and nutrition than prepackaged rice dishes.
Matthew's Crossing began seeking healthier donations after its communications coordinator, Joy Meyer, met representatives of the San Diego-based hunger-relief organization SuperFood Drive at a conference last year.
"If you start talking about it more, you start to realize the chronic health issues going on," Heimsoth said. "Then you start meeting folks who are actually focused on that and are creating whole organizations around that focus. They're giving us the tools we need to start educating not only the community but our clients as well."
Other food banks, including two of the largest in the Valley, United Food Bank and St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance, have been moving in a similar direction independently of SuperFood Drive.
"We have adjusted our most-wanted foods list to include more healthier options," St. Mary's spokesman Jerry Brown said. "Beans and rice are at the top of that list."
In addition to healthier non-perishable foods, St. Mary's and other food banks have been working to get more fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables into their food boxes. Refrigerated storage for those foods can be an issue for some food banks, so St. Mary's has started taking the food directly to clients.
"We're doing things called mobile pantries where we go out into the neighborhoods that need help the most with a truckload," Brown said.
Jayson Matthews, chief development officer for United Food Bank, said his organization has placed an emphasis on distributing more fresh foods, but he added that quality non-perishable staples are vital, too.
Matthews said many people have had to use food banks for long-term supplemental needs rather than for a short-term emergency situation. In those cases, receiving healthier foods can be even more important. He said that more people who donate to food banks are addressing that issue.
Matthews said food banks, while grateful for whatever donations they receive, have a role in educating the public on the benefits of providing healthier foods.
"People are starting to really understand that link between healthy food, healthy mind and healthy body," Matthews said. "And realizing that the good-quality food they put in will lead to a good output of productivity, energy and concentration, which will help people at work and school and help lift people out of crisis back into that thriving kind of environment we all hope for. We definitely see more of a trend on that."