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Surviving The Summer: Accessing Meals When School Is Not In Session

The end of the school year is a time when most children rejoice.

For them, summertime means no homework and long days of playing outside with friends.

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However, for the millions of children who rely on free or reduced-price meals at school, summer means new worries.

When they can’t rely on a meal at school, these children – and their parents – are forced to worry where and how they will get their next meal.

That’s why summer feeding programs are so vital.

But in 2012, only one in seven kids who ate a free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch during the school year also participated in a summer meal program.

That means of the 21 million kids who are eligible, only 3 million of them are receiving meals in the summer. Read more

National Nutrition Month

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In honor of National Nutrition Month, it is important to take a look at the efforts being made to provide healthy food options to the millions of people in need of food assistance in our country.

With an ever-growing push toward eating healthy and staying fit, food banks like the St. Louis Area Foodbank are trying to do their part to provide clients with healthier foods. We also strive to give families in need nutrition education to help them make healthy choices on their own.

We distribute millions of pounds of food to those in need, and we want to make sure that food not only fills the clients’ stomachs, but also helps them provide a healthier future for their families.

Typically seen as a large warehouse that distributes shelf-stable food, the Foodbank is evolving. We are working hard to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats.

One of our overall goals is to better meet the nutritional needs of those we serve. Diets rich in these foods will help reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes – three conditions that are prevalent in today’s society, particularly for the poor.

The St. Louis Area Foodbank is also focusing on programs and services that will help communities gain additional access to healthy food. We also share opportunities for families to learn the benefits of health eating.

We help families in need apply for food stamps, and provide senior citizens with a supplemental box of food every month. These are just two ways we are offering struggling families in our area better access to healthy, nourishing food choices.

Our food fairs and mobile markets deliver fresh produce, bakery goods and dairy products to pantries all around the St. Louis region. We also provide our clients with a wide variety of resources to make healthy living a possibility for those struggling to make ends meet.

One of the best resources to help food banks and health professionals bridge the gap between hunger relief and good nutrition is the Healthy Food Bank Hub.

The Hub is designed to provide healthy food resources to food banks across the country. The tool includes information on healthy food distribution, recipes, educational materials and much more.

For those that look to the St. Louis Area Foodbank, food pantries and soup kitchens for their next meal, eating healthy is not something they can do on their own.

The St. Louis Area Foodbank is making strides to provide healthy food and nutrition education, making the idea of healthier, well-fed communities isn’t too far away.

Each of us can do our part to make healthier food options available to all of us. Contact the St. Louis Area Foodbank and see what you can do to help, whether it is volunteering at a distribution center or simply inquiring about efforts in your community to help create awareness about nutrition.

Together we can work towards a healthier, more nutritious future.

By Kelly Hall, RD, LD

IL School Breakfast Coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank and registered dietitian.

It All Adds Up

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I’m fat.Technically, I’m probably considered obese.
I don’t say this because I’m fishing for the obligatory “no you’re not.”I say this because, well, it’s true.

I gained more than 100 pounds during the nine months of my pregnancy. And since my son’s birth in August 2013, I’ve only managed to lose about 30 of those pounds.

I share these intimate details because it occurs to me that there is a misconception in our country about obesity.

Common sense would dictate that a country full of obese individuals could not also simultaneously be a country full of hungry people.

Recent studies have shown that yes, obese people can still be the same people struggling with hunger and food insecurity. They struggle to buy and eat foods that fulfill their nutritional requirements.

I realize this fact is counterintuitive.

It would seem rational to assume that someone who is overweight obviously isn’t having trouble finding food to eat.

But here’s the skinny – pardon the pun.

I myself have a real problem with eating the wrong foods for the wrong reasons.

If I’m stressed out, upset or emotional, my instinctive reaction is to reach for a comfort food, whether it is French fries, macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes.

We are a culture of food, so it seems reasonable that when we’re under duress we crave the comfort of a tangible reminder of happier moments.

Say what you want about willpower, but when I’m sad or stressed, I don’t really care what those fries are doing to my hips.

So if I turn to junk food for comfort in my meager moments of stress, imagine the emotional eating habits of someone who faces overwhelming daily worries about unemployment, homelessness or overdue bills.

It’s also true that healthier foods require two things that low-income folks don’t have in abundance – time and money.

I myself am guilty of running through the drive through for a cheeseburger simply because after caring for a baby and working a full day, I don’t have the time or energy to go the grocery store, buy supplies, and prepare a healthy meal at home.

While the “plan-ahead” and “prep on the weekend” ideas are helpful, they’re not always feasible for me, let alone someone working two jobs.

And when it comes to the cost of food, healthy food just costs more. Yes, yes you can buy a bag of lettuce for $2. But while a $2 cheeseburger can fill you up, a bag of lettuce cannot. Or at least it doesn’t fill me up.

Even if time and money are available for healthier foods, there’s one more factor. Now, I won’t fib and say that I don’t “know” why and how to eat better.

But for some low-income folks this is just plain true. Sure, with all the media attention, most food insecure families probably know about the health consequences of poor eating habits.

But there’s a very good chance they don’t know how to go about improving their nutritional intake. The Food Network aside, there’s also a good chance some of these families have never learned how or what to cook. They don’t know what foods are both affordable and healthy. They may not have the time to search to peruse Pinterest for recipes.

Maybe they don’t even have the time or desire to worry about such things. I’m not much of a cook myself, so I can relate.

But while I have a support network and the option to join a gym, low-income folks do not. They already have a full plate, just trying to get by.

So, consider all these factors before you raise an eyebrow at an obviously overweight person at the food pantry or in line at the grocery store paying for food with food stamps.

As for me, well I don’t have any excuses that are nearly as sound.

Still, don’t judge me if I indulge in cheese fries now and then.

By Bethany Prange

Communications Coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank

Everyone Deserves a Treat

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“All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt!”

Lucy Van Pelt

In Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz

The St. Louis Area Foodbank distributed more than 34 million pounds of product this past fiscal year.

Eighty-eight percent of those pounds were nutritional foods – think meats, dairy, fruits and veggies.

So then, what the heck is in that last four million pounds?

In addition to the nutritional food we receive, we also bring in donations that include health and beauty products, household items, snacks and desserts.

Though we obviously prefer the healthier, high-nutrition foods, we know that struggling families need shampoo and paper towels, just like the rest of us.

Procuring candy donations isn’t a high priority for us. But we do believe that every person, regardless of their socio-economic status, deserves to treat themselves.

I can speak from personal experience when I say that a cookie or sweet after a healthy meal hits the spot!

What kind of birthday would a kid have without a birthday cake? How do you celebrate Valentine’s Day without a little chocolate or candy hearts?

The St. Louis Area Foodbank receives candy and desserts from our retail partners whenever the items are close to the best-by date.

We tend to get big donations of candy after all major holidays. We get a variety – holiday-themed candy considered unsellable by our stores, candy with misprinted packaging, or a new flavor that wasn’t a big seller.

We are fortunate to have The Hershey Company as a partner of Feeding America and its member food banks.

In fiscal year 2013, the Foodbank received 70,000 pounds from Hershey. So far this year, we have received nearly 14,000 pounds of goods from Hershey. The items we receive from Hershey generally come directly from their Midwest Distribution Center in Edwardsville, Ill.

As a Foodbank, we are glad to accept these items and distribute them to our agencies in a timely manner, instead of seeing them thrown away.

Giving someone the ability to receive such a special treat for Valentine’s Day is truly rewarding. We may not be that person’s “Valentine” per se, but surely we hope to have brightened their day when they are handed a chocolate sweet.

This Valentine’s Day, consider skipping the giant box of chocolate and buying a smaller one. With the extra money, donate to help us share a little love with families in need.

By Shannon O’Connor

Product Sourcing Manager at the St. Louis Area Foodbank

Eating better just got a bit easier…

Here at the St. Louis Area Foodbank we have been talking a lot about a new Feeding America initiative called “Foods to Encourage.” The program will launch later this year, and will help organizations like ours focus even more on the quality of the food we distribute, in addition to the quantity of food we distribute to people in need. The new program will follow the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: My Plate structure.

This got me thinking about what I was putting on my own plate. I have always been a pretty healthy eater, but I was still eating more processed foods than I should. In the past, I have used fitness apps to track what I’m eating. But even the best of those apps seemed to fall short when it came rating the nutritional quality of the food I was eating. Most only reported some nutritional values and a calorie count. While they encourage me to eat less, they didn’t actually encourage me to eat more of the whole fresh foods recommended by the USDA.

Then I discover the Fooducate app in a tweet by A Place at the Table Movie. The Fooducate app was exactly what I had been looking for and best of all it was free. This app grades each food based on its nutritional content. With just a few clicks on my phone, Fooducate reports not just how many calories a food item has, but also if it is actually providing your body with the nutrients and fuel it needs to thrive.

You can customize the app to grade food based on a variety of options, such as allergies you may have to nuts or gluten, or whether you’re hoping to stick to a vegan or vegetarian diet. Like the other nutrition apps I have used in the past, you can log your excercise and weight to keep track of your progress. This handy feature helps keep you motivated. Watch Fooducate’s video.

The only cons with the app is that it lacks two main features of most nutrition apps; social integration and a desktop version.

The app is available for both IPhones and Android.

Summertime Equals Fresh Produce, Even for Families in Need

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Summertime means fresh fruits and veggies at local farmers markets, in your own garden, and even right here at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

This week, the Foodbank held two food fairs – one-day food distributions to several hundred families in need.  At those events, we were lucky enough to give out tens of thousands of pounds of fresh produce.

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On Wednesday, Foodbank drivers and staff delivered 26,215 pounds of food to Owensville, Mo.  Included in that food was an amazing 18,380 pounds of fresh produce!

More than 180 families in need received fresh-picked corn, watermelon, potatoes, cantaloupe, strawberries and onions.  A special thanks to Rep. Tom Hurst and the staff of Rep. Dave Schatz for helping volunteers hand out the food! See the photos on Facebook »

On Thursday, Foodbank staff visited Irvington, Ill., where we handed out more than 26,000 pounds of food to more than 170 families.

At the food fair in this small Illinois town, individuals struggling with hunger received carloads of canned goods, fresh corn, cantaloupe, onions, watermelon, cabbage and potatoes. Check out the photos on Facebook »

We are especially grateful to the volunteers and pantry staff who help us hand out food on these hot summer days.

We are also grateful to you – the donors – who provide the funds we need to be able to provide fresh produce to families in need!

Would you like to help provide more healthy food for our communities most vulnerable families. Donate now »

By Bethany Prange
Communications coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

Digging It – Growing Your Own Food

 

I love supporting local farmers as much as the next girl, but there’s nothing quite like digging your hands into the dirt and growing your own food.

Naturally, the biggest benefit of growing your own food is, well, the food itself.

But a side bonus to gardening is the sense of empowerment and pride you feel after putting in the time and energy necessary to grow something of your own.

As a society, food brings us together. We socialize over food, whether we’re at simple family dinners or massive gala events. Gardening too, is a great way to cultivate friendships and bring family together.

I knew that growing food could be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. But I also quickly learned that it can also be a labor intensive process!

I had never planted a garden until one spring a few years back. I was craving the tastiness of homegrown veggies, so I decided to do some research and start planting.

Given the size of my backyard, I soon discovered that container gardening was more feasible for me.  I bought my containers and chose vegetable plants that can grow in a confined space. Then, I started paying attention to the spots in the yard that offered the best sunlight.

I researched soil, learned about the tools I needed to make sure my plants had the proper amount of support, and began watering. In no time, I was watching tomatoes and peppers grow!

Type of Plants

The first step to gardening is to figure out what you want to grow and where and how to grow it.  Things to consider:

  • Factor in the soil and space in your planting area, and choose plants accordingly.
  • Shade or direct sunlight? Some plants don’t need a lot of sun, while others will not thrive without amble amounts of golden rays.
  • How many plants do you need? What’s the typical yield? Some vegetables and fruits grow in abundance and you only need to grow a few plants, while others require growing multiple plants to make it worth your while.
  • When do you plant? Some plants must be planted in early spring; while others can wait until early fall. Research planting schedules to find the optimum time for planting each variety of veggie. http://www.veseys.com/us/en/learn/reference/plantingchart
  • Consult the Old Farmer’s Almanac online for lots of useful information:http://www.almanac.com/plants/type/vegetable
  • Should you plant in the ground or in containers? This depends on the amount of space you have available and the type of soil in your yard.
  • Irrigation. Make sure your hose is in close proximity to your plants. Also consider using a timed sprinkler to keep plants watered in the heat of summer.

Container Gardening

In container gardening, soil needs to be well aerated and well drained for proper plant growth.  I made sure my pots had holes in the bottom and I also lined the base of the pot with river rocks.

Never purchase garden soil by itself, because when you put it in a container both drainage and aeration are severely impeded.  Instead, place various things like peat, bark or coir fiber in the container. Research the best type of soil to grow the vegetable you’re planting.

Support is also vital in container gardening to ensure your plants grow properly and don’t break.  I grew tomatoes and peppers and bought tomato cages that allowed the plants to grow vertically.  I also tied sections of the plant to the cage to provide further guidance and support.  Used panty hose is a great material for this project.

Since I succeeded at container gardening, I am currently researching gardening tips on planting in the ground.  Things to consider specifically for gardening in the ground:

  • How much space do you need between plants?
  • What mechanisms do you need to keep animals out of your vegetation?
  • How will you till the soil?

I hope the above information provided a little bit of guidance and that you are energized to get out there and grow your own food.  Happy gardening!

Andrea Hale
Andrea Hale is the IL CSFP/SNAP Coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

Peanut Butter: A Donation That Sticks

Peanut Butter Donations

Did you eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a kid? I sure did. Peanut butter was a staple in our house, and we often went through several jars in a week. I remember loving Annette Funicello in the commercials for Skippy, trading sandwiches at school based upon jelly flavors and my mom handing me a slice of peanut butter bread when she needed some quiet time.

As an adult, I’ve lost my taste for peanut butter, but I can’t deny its nutritional value. Peanut butter is packed with protein and essential vitamins and minerals, and it’s surely the food that inspired the phrase “sticks to your ribs.” Mom really did know best when she suggested the sticky stuff for a meal or snack.

That’s why the St. Louis Area Foodbank includes peanut butter on its list of “Best Items to Donate.” No matter if it’s creamy or loaded with nuts, peanut butter offers Foodbank clients some of the easiest and tastiest nutrition possible for just a few dollars a jar. And those who consume peanut butter stay full longer — something that’s so important to Foodbank families.

In honor of National Peanut Butter Day on Jan. 24, will you consider donating a few jars to the St. Louis Area Foodbank? You can drop items off at the Foodbank headquarters or at a number of area food drives and collection sites. Even better, why not gather your friends, coworkers or interest group for a virtual food drive? Through an interactive game, your group can “shop” for peanut butter and other nutritious foods online when it’s convenient and send funds directly to the Foodbank, whose staff then picks up your chosen items at area stores and distributes them to clients in need.

I definitely plan to support the St. Louis Area Foodbank on National Peanut Butter Day. Good nutrition and hearts drawn on sandwiches are both worthwhile things, in my book.

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    Allison Babka is a freelance writer, “Riverfront Times” columnist, karaoke host and St. Louis Area Foodbank #SocialMediaAvenger. Follow her on Twitter at@ambabka.

New School Food Pantry Ensures Kids Are Ready to Learn

School Pantry

Foodbank staff, along with representatives from the Jennings school district and local dignitaries cut the ribbon at the new school pantry / Photo by Bethany Prange

Fact: Children who eat three nutritious meals a day perform much better in school than children who are food insecure.

Even adults can attest that hungry tummies are not conducive to learning or productivity.

But for many St. Louis-area children, the only guaranteed meal they eat each day is the lunch they receive from the free or reduced lunch program at their school.

Preparing students to learn is a priority for teachers and administrators, and it’s a task that goes far beyond just providing books and pencils, says Dr. Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of schools in the Jennings School District.

The overall health and welfare of the child is vital, Anderson says.

So when administrators in her school district realized some of their students were going hungry, they knew they had to take action.

Jennings administrators contacted the St. Louis Area Foodbank about opening a food pantry at one of their schools.

While Foodbank staff had been contemplating the benefits of a school food pantry for many years, we initially did not have the funds or the food to make it happen.

But in September, the Foodbank received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families(TANF) funds from the state of Missouri. This funding stipulates that the TANF food must be distributed to families with at least one member age 18 or younger.

A school food pantry seemed like the perfect opportunity to distribute food to children and families in need. With this project in mind, Foodbank staff immediately reached out to the Jennings School District.

On Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2012, the new Jennings Community Cupboard opened at the Jennings Educational Training School. The pantry will be part of a one-year pilot program coordinated by the Foodbank.

A second food pantry will open soon at Shearwater High School in St. Louis. Both school pantries will track the number of children they serve each year to help determine the success of the program and to provide data for further funding.

The food pantry at Shearwater will be open to students of the high school, while the Jennings School District pantry will make their food available to any family with a child enrolled in the district.

At Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony at Jennings, Foodbank staff joined administrators from the school district, local residents and Jennings Mayor Benjamin Sutphin for a tour of the new pantry.

Student volunteers, along with volunteers from the district and the community, will sort, stack and bag food for pantry clients. So far, the students have already worked hard to get the pantry up and running.

The pantry will distribute food on the third and fourth Thursdays of every month, starting this month. A family in need of food assistance with a child enrolled in Jennings School District should call their child’s school counselor or social worker.

In addition to partnerships with the Foodbank, Schnucks and Target stores, the Jennings Community Cupboard will accept community donations.

“I have found that it really takes a village to pull all of this together,” says Shelia Nicholson, the director of student services for the Jennings School District.

Nicholson, along with Greg Almus, school administrator at Jennings Educational Training School, helped lead the charge to get the pantry open.

“I’m so glad we have this opportunity,” says Jennings School District Board President Rose Mary Johnson. “We are so glad to spearhead something so important for our community.”

    Bethany Prange is the communications coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank