It’s the season for giving — but not the cream of processed junk hiding at the back of your pantry.

“Think about what’s in your favorite vegetarian stew and give those ingredients. That’s a mindset we’d like to support,” says Jodi Balis, dietitian at the Capital Area Food Bank. It’s one of a dozen food banks across the country participating in “Healthy Options, Healthy Meals,” a partnership between MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and Kaiser Permanente to ensure a focus on nutrition.

Funding this project is part of a broader strategy to promote healthy eating, says Loel Solomon, Kaiser’s vice president for community health. When the least-healthy food options are the cheapest, people with the least amount of money are put in a difficult position, he says.

Organizations such as the Capital Area Food Bank are dealing with the dual problems of hunger and diet-related illnesses. Balis says they’re not fulfilling their mission if they’re feeding people yet exacerbating diabetes and heart disease.

“Healthy Options, Healthy Meals” has helped food banks share ideas, formalize commitments to nutrition and identify healthy foods and provide more of it.

“We’ve traditionally measured our success in pounds [of food distributed]. That tells us something, but not nutritional quality,” Balis says. “How many dark green vegetables is that?”

Capital Area Food Bank now has a formal definition of what constitutes healthy foods. For example: “Canned fruits should be packed in natural juices, and canned vegetables should have no added salt.”

Although food banks started as a source of emergency food, they’ve become a part of how communities eat regularly, says MAZON’s Marla Feldman. And that means they have to think about the long-term future of the people they serve.

“A calorie is not just a calorie,” she says.

Healthy Dozen

These are donation suggestions from the Capital Area Food Bank to help families in need create nutritious meals:

Canned peaches

Natural applesauce

Canned spinach (no added salt)


Brown rice

Black beans

Canned salmon

Olive oil

Canned tomatoes

Natural peanut butter

Low-fat yogurt

Ground turkey