Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, is just around the corner. Things I love about it: the fall season, celebrating at home with family and friends, the food, its inclusive nondenominational nature, and the lack of pressure around gift giving. It’s probably the least commercialized holiday. Did I mention the food? Mom’s homemade stuffing is the best, and the apple pies we get from the local farmers market are killer.
I also love that many families have special traditions. Some play touch football (if you’re the Kennedys). Other families make it part of their Thanksgiving tradition to give back. Some volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Some donate to a food pantry. That’s a beautiful thing—sharing the bounty of the season and a nourishing meal with others who are less fortunate.
After the holiday passes and the leftovers have been consumed, the challenge is to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to fresh, healthy meals not only on Thanksgiving but throughout the year. Sadly, hunger is a daily fact of life for too many. It has been estimated that nearly 2.7 million New Yorkers are “food insecure,” meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food for an active and healthy life. That number includes more than 884,000 children (nearly 21% of kids in New York State). Among all states, New York has the 17th-highest rate of food hardship among families with children.
Hunger isn’t limited only to the poorest New Yorkers. Nearly half of all working-age New York State residents who can’t afford enough food live in households where at least one person is employed.
New Yorkers with food insecurity often rely on different parts of the emergency food system. Nearly 3 million New Yorkers participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (called SNAP, and formerly known as food stamps) each month. And nearly half a million participate in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. Assistance isn’t limited to government programs. There are approximately 3,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in the State, serving about 3 million New Yorkers annually.
Food pantries are a vital lifeline, but they can also contain a cruel irony. They often receive donations of—and distribute—unhealthy foods. They distribute foods that are high in salt, sugar, calories, and chemical preservatives and low in nutritional value. A “pounds in, pounds out” system is sometimes used to measure success, but it’s a perverse way to define success when the weight of products (think of salty canned foods or soda and juices loaded with sugar) carries more importance than the quality of the food.
You can hardly blame the food pantries. Many of them lack appropriate refrigeration units to accept fresh produce and other perishable items. Or their refrigerators break down a lot. And they work with what they get. People are generous and absolutely mean well, but let’s be honest: how many times have you gotten word of a food drive and donated whatever cans of beans or soup you had lying around? I’ve done it; I once thought canned goods and dried pasta were smart donation choices precisely because they have a long storage life.
The whole thing is so fundamentally unfair: those with the least get the least. How can we ask the most food insecure and hungry to subsist on such poor quality food; food that might actually be bad for them? Food pantry patrons are among those most in need of healthy meals. A recent New York Times article reported that one-third of the 15.5 million families served by Feeding America (the largest hunger-relief organization in the country) have a household member with diabetes. It’s illustrative of the cycle of poverty in action when systems meant to help people can cause harm.
On a happy note, I’m finding more and more creative efforts aiming to turn this around. Work is underway throughout the nation to increase both the availability and the consumption of healthy foods at food pantries, focusing on both the supply and demand sides. A recent NPR story highlighted the idea of nutritional “nudging” to promote consumption of healthier foods at food pantries. Increasingly, pantries are being set up more like grocery stores, where patrons can shop the aisles and choose the foods that most appeal to them. Placing healthier options more prominently and touting their nutritional value can influence the choices shoppers make and lead to healthier eating.
A promising program in Texas, California, and Ohio is coupling healthier options with on-site nutrition counseling and referrals to primary care providers, diabetes management classes, and regular blood sugar checks.
Here in New York State, Clinton County is focused on implementing a similar approach, exploring options to increase local food pantries’ capacity to serve fresh items, work with faith communities to improve the quality of food donated through their food drives, and provide nutrition education to volunteers, staff, donors, and clients. Clinton County food pantries alone purchased 11 tons of food from the regional food bank and received donations of 51 tons last year, so this is a big deal. In the Hudson Valley, collaborative efforts are underway to connect farmers, mobile markets, and farm stands to make fresh local foods more available to residents with limited access to affordable healthy foods.
In our land of plenty, hunger is real and common. Nearly 16 million households in the U.S. lack enough food to feed their whole families. Let’s think about them when we sit down at our Thanksgiving feasts this year to count our blessings. Let’s remember them all year long. And let’s take action so that more families have access to nutritious food options that will lead to better health.