Thoughts on Food Banks Refusing Unhealthy Donations

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The other day I was asked what I thought about a food pantry refusing donations of unhealthy food.

An Ottawa food bank is saying no thank you to Kraft Dinner, hot dogs and dozens of other items deemed unhealthy. Parkdale Food Centre co-ordinator Karen Secord says everybody deserves good-quality food – even those who can’t afford it.

“I don’t want canned stew, Alpha-Getti, Kraft Dinner, pop, chips, candy,” Secord told CTV Ottawa.

Parkdale Food Centre co-ordinator Karen Secord says everybody deserves good-quality foods – even those who can’t afford it.

Going through a box of donated food items, Secord is quick to take some pieces out of the mix. Among the items that failed to make the cut are: a box of Dunkaroos, a package of Maynards Swedish Berries, an opened bottle of salad dressing that expired in 2008 and an opened container of Hot Rod meat snacks. “It is sending the message out to people that you are not worth it, that your health isn’t worth as much as my health is worth,” Secord said.

The notion had prompted a lot of head shaking along the lines of “They should be grateful for anything they get.” “What’s the problem with hotdogs?”

There are a few things to keep in mind here that we aren’t told in the article and some other things for context.

1. In the US, nearly everyone getting a food box or ‘shopping’ at a food bank is receiving SNAP. In some places, that’s a requirement, so this is food that is supplementing SNAP. (In Canada, they just give cash assistance.)

So one way of looking at it, is that this moves some staple purchases – pasta, rice, beans, peanut butter, vegetables off the SNAP card and frees up some budget for snacks, desserts and other ‘luxuries”. People shouldn’t be denied these treats if possible, but they tend to more personal tastes than pasta, beans, canned tomatoes, etc. Using SNAP at the grocery store is actually a better place to make those choices (and then you can luxuriate in the person behind you in line being judgmental.)

2. It’s important for food banks to create a feedback loop with their donors to steer future donations toward food that really are helpful. Hotdogs, Doritos? You want to be really helpful, pitch in some frozen vegetables or better yet a frozen vegetable lasagna. Healthy pre-cooked meals are a real luxury when you are on a budget. A decent entree with some nutrition that doesn’t require any cooking. Now you are really helping that proverbial single mom.

3. Another consideration arguing in favor of putting a real emphasis on healthy food for food banks is a phenomenon called the “Hunger-Obesity Paradox”. This stems from an uneven monthly consumption cycle. You get access to food, you purchase energy dense, foods which tend to spike insulin and get stored as fat. Then you cut way back and eat much less to make what’s left of your budget stretch. This semi-starvation mode causes your metabolism to slow down, meaning that when you get those energy dense calories at the beginning of the month, they are actually more fattening. Contributing cheap, energy dense insulin spiking foods that can actually make contribute to hunger while at the same time causing weight gain and pre-diabetes is not helpful for those people.

4. If you really want to help, give MONEY. Taking your money (and time) to pay retail for whatever foods you guess that people might want makes zero sense compared to giving the money directly to the food bank so that they can get bulk deals from distributors on foods that they know are in demand by the clientele they serve.

5. There is something to be said for food banks taking on a pedagogic role in shaping the diet of their clientele. But largely, they don’t need to. The clientele are much more grateful for access to good produce and other quality products. They tend to be more sensitive to feeling like they are getting cheap garbage that no one else wants than they are to being denied cheap garbage.

From the article, we don’t know what the match is in terms of raw calories between what they are able to provide and what their clients need. I would guess that they have sufficient calories to meet their clientele’s basic energy requirements. If it was between people going hungry and eating hotdogs, obviously give them the hotdogs.

More likely than not, they are thinking and planning one or two steps ahead and this reporter just wanted to write a story to stir the pot.

PS: I don’t know if I explained the Hunger-Obesity Paradox well enough, but it has two parts and the part that is most relevant here can be observed in anyone who has gone to a movie and consumed 12,000 calories of soda and popcorn and emerged from the theater hungry and a little shaky with low blood sugar. How can you be hungry after eating 12,000 calories? Because your body overshoots on the insulin response, all this energy is stored as fat before it can be used for activity. Now your blood sugar is low and you’re hungry again.

The second part can be seen in people who yo-yo diet. Each time you do a serious calorie restricted diet, your body responds as if you’ve encountered famine. The evolutionary response to surviving famine is to do more with less. This means you need less food to do the same work. Put another way, the same amount of food as before is now more fattening.

Poverty in America often pairs these two phenomena into a single craptacular paradox of being hungry and gaining weight almost simultaneously.

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