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How Are Community Food Banks Innovating for the Future?

A Community Health Story September 16, 2022

Food banks and food pantries have faced increasing demand for food to help support the whole health of individuals and communities. At the same time, many food banks are finding innovative ways to make the experience of visiting the community food pantry more convenient, equitable, and enjoyable — and improve the nutritional value of the food they provide.

More than 33 million people, including 5 million children, lived in food-insecure households in the U.S in 2021. That translates to about 10% of all households in the country. When it comes to whole health, access to nutritious food is a significant social driver of health.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the housing crisis, and inflation have all put pressure on families and food bank demand. What’s the difference between food banks and food pantries? Food banks store and distribute food that is donated, purchased, or provided by federal programs to individual food pantries. Food pantries are where people can come to get food when they need it. Here are some of the ways they are working to make those services better.
 

Connecting People with More Nutritious Food

When Indianapolis resident Minkah Becktemba discovered he had high blood pressure and was pre-diabetic, his doctor referred him to a nutritionist. Becktemba took a class on healthy eating and found that the Crooked Creek Food Pantry had a distribution center right there, at the Eskenazi Health Center Pecar Building, where he was able to put what he’d learned into practice: less fat, more fruits, vegetables, eggs and other lean protein. The “prescription” for a better diet ended up paying off: “I had a check-up and my blood pressure is getting low, so I’m feeling pretty good!” Becktemba said.

Becktemba’s experience is part of the Food as Medicine program, a partnership between Feeding America® and Elevance Health Foundation, in which member food banks collaborate with healthcare providers to screen people for food insecurity. Healthcare partners will then connect patients who need food assistance to resources onsite at healthcare facilities and at community-based food pantries and meal programs.

Indianapolis resident Minkah Becktemba talks to a doctor about how a nutritious diet can help treat his high blood pressure. He was even referred to a food pantry located right there, at the Eskenazi Health Center Pecar Building. 

Food banks are also working to stock more healthy food like fruits, vegetables, low-sodium options, and lean protein. Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana has been using the Healthy Eating Research guidelines to rank their products and inventory to make sure they have plenty of nutritious food, said Sarah Wilson, Gleaners’ nutrition manager.

One of the bigger challenges is that not every community food pantry has the space and resources to keep a lot of food that is not shelf stable, said Gail Lowry, chief philanthropy officer at Gleaners. “In the future, I think we’ll see more pantries that can have a larger footprint and have capacity to take perishable food, to put in a walk-in freezer, a walk-in cooler, a doorway that's big enough to take huge pallets of food and really help close what we call the meal gap.”

“We're a food bank,” Lowry said, “but we have to work with food pantries to make sure they can deliver the best food and nutrition education possible. Some of them don't have the wherewithal to fundraise for a freezer or a cooler, but we do. So we are giving grants now to our downstream partners to help them invest in their facilities and in their programs so that they can serve more people.”
 

Leveraging Technology to Improve the Supply Chain

It’s no easy task to source and move billions of pounds of food through a nationwide network of community food banks and food pantries. Some food banks are relying more heavily on data to forecast future demand and ensure they will have enough food.

Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, with a network of 200 food banks, 21 statewide associations, and 60,000 partner food pantries and meal programs. The organization is using technologies to efficiently save and divert food that would otherwise go to waste. “Our national reach allows us to develop, test, and quickly scale technology solutions across the food bank network—simplifying how local organizations and donors give and receive nutritious food donations,” said Mark Stephens, executive vice president of innovation at Feeding America.

For example, MealConnect is a free, easy-to-use website for retailers to donate surplus food directly to local network food banks and pantries. On a local and statewide basis, there are programs that help farmers donate food for the community that would otherwise be discarded or go unharvested. In Minnesota, the Farm to Food Shelf program includes $1.1 million in state funds to help farmers offset the cost to harvest and package donated fruits and vegetables.
 

Making Community Food Pantries More Convenient

Just as you can go online to order food from your local grocery store to be delivered or picked up, many community food pantries allow people to order food ahead and pick it up, so they don’t have to wait in a time-consuming line and can plan nutritious meals before arriving.

OrderAhead, Feeding America’s online grocery ordering system, offers neighbors privacy, convenience, and fewer social and physical barriers to accessing charitable food. People facing hunger can order free groceries online and pick them up at a location they choose; in some cities, the food can even be delivered to their home.

“It allows us to really zero in on some perishable items, because we keep the boxes packed and refrigerated here and then they're just going out when the people arrive,” said Lowry of Gleaners, which has a program called Gleaners2Go. “We have said this time and again: Some good things came out of the pandemic. And I think one of the top things is that we are trying to meet people where they are; adding these innovative programs to what we're doing has really been key.”

There are many opportunities for companies and individuals to contribute to America’s hunger problem, either by donating time or money to help local food banks and food pantries source and distribute nutritious food to their neighbors in need. Visit Feeding America to find out more.

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