November 3, 2015
I started working at my first food bank in 1989. At the time, most of the product we distributed was from the USDA or odd canned food that was donated through food drives. I was a volunteer. My job was packing food boxes: two cans of meat, two cans of fruit, canned yams, canned juice, box of cereal, bag of biscuit mix…I can still recall the ache in my fingers after a three hour shift. I loved the work and the idea that we could end hunger through food distribution, and I went on to work for the San Diego Food Bank and Feeding America San Diego.
The hunger relief landscape changed during my time in food banking. The secondary markets – dollar and discount grocery stores – began purchasing the food that had previously been donated to food banks. This required the industry to look for alternative food sources. The biggest, untapped opportunity turned out to be fresh fruits and vegetables and retail grocery food. The plus side to these new food sources was a more nutritious food box. The down side was that the new food was perishable. Distributing perishable food cost more money and can be a logistical nightmare. You need refrigerated trucks, huge coolers and freezers, more volunteers to glean, sort and distribute product, and perishable food is best suited for a push model. You’ve seen the pictures of long food lines, the mass distributions. That’s the push model. It’s good for distributing a lot of food but often requires families to wait in line for long periods of time.
In addition to changing food sources, the length of time families and individuals needed food assistance grew. At one time, an individual or family would require food for a few months. Maybe a member of the family got sick or the car broke down. Today, families and individuals are dependent on food banks for a longer period of time. Some – especially seniors and kids – count on assistance for years.
Amidst these changes, the nutrition-in-food-banking-movement was born. It could have been because of concern that produce was going from farm, to family, to trash. It could have been due to an increasing awareness that the individuals being served by food banks were struggling more often with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. No doubt, a lot of factors contributed to the paradigm shift. However, this new awareness about the food and the families was transformative.
At today’s distributions it’s not unusual to see nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, vegetable of the month, and food preservation tips. Specialty pantries serving the unique nutritional needs of diabetics are growing, and “moving people from hunger to health” has become part of the hunger relief vernacular. Of course the work isn’t done, but this is cause for some celebration.
The other day, my daughter volunteered to donate food to her school’s food drive. Her eyes glazed over as I told her how I had been a volunteer at a food bank and how I had packed boxes until my fingers ached. But, when I asked what she wanted to bring for the food drive she perked up and said, “They want healthy stuff like brown rice, whole grain pasta, and fruit in 100% juice instead of syrup.”
Jennifer Gilmore’s passion for hunger relief has been demonstrated by her work in food banking for more than a decade. She currently serves on the San Diego Hunger Coalition’s board and as the executive director of Kitchens for Good, a social enterprise that provides job training and meals to the hungry.