On one of the coldest days in February, a small team of volunteers stands ready at four trucks outside the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood to accept brown paper shopping bags filled with donations. It’s windy, and the paper list stapled to the outside of each bag flaps in the breeze as they are handed up to be placed in the waiting bins.
The list indicates the most needed items and instructions on what cannot be donated.
The foods are basics like cereal, canned soups and vegetables, and boxed meals. They meet the needs of most of the individuals who are food insecure. But not all.
“Thanks to Feeding America’s “Hunger in America 2014” study, we were able to confirm many intersections between hunger and health,” says Gene Hallinan, communications manager at Harvesters — the Community Food Network. “According to the study, nationally, one-third of client households surveyed had a family member with diabetes and more than half had a family member with high blood pressure.”
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Nutritious items are needed the most. But these items are expensive. People who donate food are confronted with the same decision as recipients: how to feed as many as possible on a limited budget. Seventy-nine percent of households who receive food assistance report that they purchase the cheapest food available, even if they know it is not the healthiest option.
Nearly two-thirds of households report having to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care. It’s a situation that will likely worsen under the proposed American Health Care Act, or “Trumpcare.”
Churchgoers pass by the waiting trucks. Some are bearing food. Volunteers rush to meet an expectant mom carrying a donation bag while her husband handles their squirming toddler. One man apologetically hands over a bag with a single can of vegetables and a box of pasta in it. Another family pulls up in an SUV and unloads several boxes. People give what they can, when they can.
As one woman passes by, she stops to tell the nearest volunteer, “I brought mine last week!” She smiles and waves. She needed us to know that she wasn’t just walking past. That she had helped.
By the third service on Sunday, the large bins in each of the trucks are full. Bags are stacked along the floors. Glass jars are in boxes: They can break in transport, a hazard to the volunteers and the other food items. Plus, volunteer will have to spend time on clean up should they break, so they have to be separated from the other foods.
“Last year, the donations totaled about 56 tons,” says Chuck Manthey, one of the lead volunteers for COR’s hunger ministry. “Even at that amount, we still had to purchase $36,946 of additional food in order to continue deliveries to the 19 food pantries we support throughout the year.”
The additional funds for purchased food fill the gap between donated items from the organization’s two major food drives and the commitment that COR has made to the pantries. The funds come from cash donations during food drives and special offerings, such as those at Christmas.
COR’s food ministry is remarkably efficient. The annual budget of $6,000 is primarily used for packing supplies. The staff is all volunteers, with a core team of regulars and additional crew for peak food drive activities.
Manthey pulls the strap on the rolling door and secures the back of the truck. The collection is complete, at least for this food drive. The work is far from over, though.
At the church’s warehouse nearby, 20 volunteers line up along rows of tables. Every item has to be inspected and sorted by type into a marked box. The boxes are sealed and transferred to pallets for monthly deliveries.
The inspection of each item takes time. Older volunteers squint, turning the boxes and cans this way and that. They are looking for expiration dates and inspecting dents.
Most items are fine. There are random items from the backs of pantries. Canned chipped beef. Turkey spam. Opened and unsealed items like a plastic baggie of tea bags and nuts. A boxed meal kit that expired in 1987. Dented cans.
“If a can is dented near a seam or a junction, it makes it possible for air to enter the can,” Harvesters’ Hallinan explains. “An unsafe dent can cause a pinhole in the can, which also could allow air to enter. This air, combined with moisture in the can, allows the growth of microorganisms that cannot be killed by cooking. Consumption of this food could potentially result in botulism.”
It seems logical not to donate these items, but they still show up in donation bags. The easiest rule of thumb is, if you would not eat it yourself, don’t donate it. Opened and partially consumed items are tossed out by volunteers, taking time away from sorting the usable items. Expired and dented items don’t go to waste. These are sent to a farm, where they become food for hogs.
It’s getting close to 8:30 pm on Sunday. Some of the volunteers started their day 12 hours earlier collecting food. After four hours of sorting and boxing, only seven of the large bins have been sorted and boxed. It seems like a lot of food. It’s generous and significant.
But it is also not enough.
Fifty-six tons will meet only part of the need. COR also runs a Backpacks for Hunger mission. With a budget of $254,124, this mission provides 49,604 bags of supplemental food for children who may experience hunger over the weekend when there is no school meal service.
By comparison, in 2016, Harvesters distributed nearly 25,000 tons of food to our 26-county region, where 1 in 7 individuals are at risk of hunger. That’s 41,634,485 meals.
Across the nation, if you combined all of the food provided by food banks like Harvesters and by all the individual churches and organizations like COR, the total would fill only 4 percent of the need. Four percent. All these organizations are stretched to provide as much as they do now.
The other 96 percent of food assistance is provided through federal programs, including SNAP (food stamps), WIC (women, infants and children food and nutrition program) and the school lunch program.
There is no nonprofit or private safety net that can fill the gap effectively if there are extensive cuts to government programs such as the proposed $150 million decrease in SNAP and elimination of Meals on Wheels funding.
The scale of need is overwhelming.
“Delivering food to the pantries and shelters is supposed to leave you with a good feeling,” says my husband, Kurt Becker, who recently joined the small group of volunteers who run the hunger relief effort for COR. “Me, not so much. Not when you see how much need there is.”
He reflects not on his group’s efforts, but the struggles of the individuals who run the food pantries. These individuals make tremendous personal sacrifice and overcome obstacles just to keep the pantries going.
“When you meet these people, and see the need, it’s hard to imagine that you’re doing all you can,” he says. “I guess you can’t change the world. At least you can make a difference in your own little corner.”
Volunteers finish up after a long day’s work. Sixteen more bins of unsorted food await the next sorting crews. Each bin contains about 80 bags of groceries.
Each bag is someone’s little corner, the place they could make a difference.
Food donation guide
Most needed items:
▪ Whole-grain, low-sugar cereals (hot or cold)
▪ Canned chicken, tuna and salmon
▪ Canned fruit, low-sugar
▪ Canned vegetables and beans
▪ Peanut, almond and sunflower butters
▪ Low-sodium soup
▪ Whole-grain pasta and pasta sauce
▪ Brown rice and dried beans
As a rule of thumb, if you would not eat it yourself, don’t donate it. This includes items that are past their “best buy” or other expiration date.
The USDA allows two types of dates that may be shown on labels:
Open dating is displayed as a calendar date and may be applied to a food product by the manufacturer or retailer. It provides an estimated period of time for which the product will be of best quality, which helps the store determine how long to display the product for sale.
Closed dating is displayed as a code consisting of a series of letters and/or numbers. It’s applied by manufacturers to identify the date and time of production.
Examples of phrases commonly used with dates:
▪ “Best if used by/before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.
▪ “Sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.
▪ “Use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.
Except for infant formula, dates are not always an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by federal law.
Dented or damaged cans and packages
Cans with smooth dents or dents that are not on the seam and compromise the can are safer.
Discard cans if dents are on a seam or where the side and end meet; if they have sharp edges; if there is swelling and bulging or rust that does not wipe off
Do not donate
Items that are opened or partially used and that are not packaged or the packaging is compromised.
Glass containers require special handling and have safety risks for volunteers. Avoid donating items in glass.
▪ Families with limited food resources often sacrifice nutritional quality or variety to make food dollars last.
▪ SNAP benefits average $1.37 per person per meal, not enough to afford an adequate, nutritious diet.
▪ For many households, SNAP benefits won’t last through the month. Over 90 percent of all benefits are redeemed by Day 21 of the month.
▪ Eating healthy is particularly critical for vulnerable children and seniors, for whom the consequences of poor nutrition are more severe.
▪ Food-insecure children are more likely to get sick and are 30 percent more likely to have a history of hospitalization.
▪ Low-income households already spend a greater share of their income on food. Food accounts for about 15.3 percent of spending for households making less than $10,000 per year compared to the U.S. average of less than 12.8 percent.
▪ Low-income households who lose critical food assistance from SNAP have less flexibility in their budgets to absorb additional food spending.
Beth Bader is a co-author of the book “The Cleaner Plate Club.”