Area Food Pantries Try To Watch What They Mete

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008; Page A01

It was the maraschino cherries that did it.

"Are you trying to kill me?" the woman asked Ted Pringle, director of food and clothing for Bread for the City, the District's largest food pantry. "I'm a diabetic. I can't have these."

The jar -- a contribution from a well-meaning donor -- had been accidentally packed into the woman's monthly food bag. But the incident crystallized a disconnect that had long troubled Pringle.

Upstairs, doctors at Bread for the City's medical clinic were treating people with hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes. They were telling clients to eat less salt and cut down on refined sugars. But the same folks were getting food bags that contained soup packed with sodium and cereals with high-fructose corn syrup.

Something wasn't right.

Such occurrences are prompting Bread for the City and food pantries across the country to rethink how they stock their shelves. Pringle no longer orders soup unless he can get a low-sodium variety. Brown rice, which is more nutritious and has more fiber, is sometimes given out instead of white. These days, clients might open their bags to find that whole wheat pasta has replaced the familiar boxes of neon orange macaroni and cheese.

His and other agencies have brought on nutritionists to teach clients how to prepare healthier food or educate them about reading food labels. In Vermont, food pantries are trying to control the amount of sodium and additives in the foods they distribute by cooking from scratch, said Ross Fraser, spokesman for America's Second Harvest, a national network of food banks. Workers there make stews from fresh meat and vegetables and flash-freeze them for distribution.

Manna Food Center in Montgomery County has a nutritionist on loan from food service contractor Sodexho who helps ensure that the baskets given out are healthy, said Tim Lanigan, the nonprofit organization's director of food collection.

The Capital Area Food Bank, the largest in the Washington region, has hired a full-time nutritionist and offers a six- to eight-week course on healthy grocery shopping and cooking. Almost one-third of the 20 million pounds of food it gives away annually is fresh produce. "A lot of people don't tie food and nutrition and health together, and they're very interrelated,'' said Lynn Brantley, the food bank's president and chief executive.

"It requires a shift in thinking," said Sharon Gruber, a nutritionist recently hired by Bread for the City to help revamp its offerings and help clients think more carefully about what they eat. "We want to give people the calories they need to survive, but we also want the food to be nutritious and tasty."

The shift is fueled largely by concerns about the growing number of Americans who are overweight, a condition that can lead to such chronic diseases as hypertension and diabetes. According to surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity among adults between 20 and 74 has more than doubled, from 15 percent in a 1976-80 survey to 32.9 percent in 2003-04. The percentage of children who are obese has tripled since 1980.

Add to that the fact that obesity rates tend to be higher among minorities and low-income people -- a significant percentage of the population served by such groups as Bread for the City -- and Gruber said it's clear agencies such as hers must act.

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