TORONTO – Food banks across the country are always happy to receive donations, but now more than ever, they’re aiming to stock their shelves and food hampers with nutritious food.
And in some cases, they’re being careful about how they hand out junk food, if they do at all.
At the Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre, executive director Paul Merriman says donors might be asked to contribute whole-wheat bread or whole-grain pasta to better take care of the nutritional needs of clients.
“Do we throw out junk food? A lot of the times, yes,” he said.
“Chips, pop, candy bars, pastries. We’ve been asked by the community leaders and certainly myself and the board are pushing that, you know what, it’s not necessarily going to solve a problem if we give out junk food.”
Merriman said some treats are redirected to schools where teachers can hand them out in a controlled manner or to an addiction centre where the sugar in chocolate bars, for instance, might help people coming off crystal meth.
“We donate some of it to Canadian Blood Services so people have it for after their snack at blood donation.”
Andrew Burditt, public relations director for the Salvation Army, said his organization seeks healthy donations too.
“I don’t think we would turn down food, because at the end of the day we do need to feed people and the demand for supplies continues to increase,” he said in an interview.
“But what we would do is we would encourage people to, perhaps, if they’re thinking about purchasing something to donate to us, then think about what it is you are looking to donate.”
In a pre-Thanksgiving report Wednesday entitled Restocking the Shelves 2011, the Salvation Army details for the first time staff responses about the role of nutrition at hundreds of food programs across Canada.
Ninety-three per cent of respondents said that serving clients meals with nutritional value is a medium or high priority for them.
“In March of 2011, the Salvation Army launched what we call the dignity project and that is an ongoing philosophy of service, if you will, that is based on the foundation that dignity for all is a fundamental human right,” Burditt said.
“And we believe that nutritious, healthy food should be a fundamental human right, so we wanted to make sure we included it in this report.”
Fifty-one per cent of Salvation Army food service workers reported having access to a nutritionist or other expert to help with meal planning.
“It would be a rare circumstance where we actually have somebody on staff, but they certainly work in partnership with folks in their community, with volunteers that perhaps might be chefs, might even be nutritionists themselves, and they go to them to source information and look for tips,” Burditt explained.
In addition, more than 60 per cent of respondents said they cater to the needs of people with health or dietary concerns, including those with gluten allergies, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Merriman said the clientele at the Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre is about 60 per cent aboriginal, Metis and Inuit, and “there’s a huge diabetic problem within that community, so we certainly don’t want to contribute to that.”
A dietitian comes in two or three times a year at random to audit the food hampers for nutritional requirements, he said.
“And that way when we go out and talk to people, we say, ‘We’re not giving out junk food … we have a dietitian that’s helping us with our food hampers,’ and it means a lot more to the credibility of what we’re doing versus just giving out crap food,” Merriman said.
“My philosophy and my board’s philosophy is: ‘If we’re not prepared to feed our own children with this, then it’s not going out to our clients because it comes down to a dignity issue.’ “We don’t want to give them mouldy bread and dented cans. We want to make sure that they’re getting the best that they can.”
He realizes his food bank might have more options compared to some others in the country, in part because of a booming local economy and a sizable donation received not long ago from the Saskatchewan Potash Corp.
One challenge is trying to get fresh fruit and vegetables into food hampers, he noted.
The food bank has partnered with various organizations and will, for instance, plow vacant lots and plant potatoes.
“We have a partnership with the local correctional facility, that they have some land out there, obviously they have a labour force. They’re growing potatoes and corn and tomatoes for us, and they bring it down by the tonful,” he said.
“We get everything this time of year, but in February and March it’s not too conducive to growing food in Saskatchewan.”
In addition, the food bank has a barter system and will exchange treats for produce from nearby Hutterite communities.
“The Hutterite colony gets some candy bars and some luxury items on their side of things and we get a few thousand pounds of potatoes,” said Merriman.
Burditt said he believes Canadians are inherently generous and continue to donate.
“They’re seeing a need and responding. We’re encouraged by that.”
The online Salvation Army survey was conducted from July 7 to Sept. 2 and involved 159 staff members and administrators with first-hand experience of the organization’s food programs.
Three-quarters of programs said there was more demand for services compared to the previous year. But nearly one-third saw an increase in donations year over year – double the number in 2010.
As well, about 64 per cent of respondents said their food shelves were half-full to full, up from 55 per cent who reported those levels in 2010.