It’s not your father’s food pantry anymore
Volunteers of all ages showed up at Cape Cod Organic Farm to dig sweet potatoes to donate to local food pantries.
Food pantries used to be stocked with non-perishable boxes and cans that were filled with sodium and sugar. Over the past dozen years that has changed dramatically in most of the larger food pantries on the Cape, as the Cape Cod Hunger Network has worked to educate both donors and clients about eating healthier.
Brenda Swain, executive director of the Falmouth Service Center and co-chair of the Cape Cod Hunger Network, has worked for the past 15 years to get more nutritious choices in the local pantries. She partnered with Cape Abilities, a non-profit organization providing support to people with disabilities, to create “food shelf talkers” or signs to place in grocery stores to encourage healthier donations.
Her co-chair at the Hunger Network, Cape Cod Cooperative Extension nutritionist Kim Concra, developed a healthy food donation list and put together a cookbook to help pantry clients make healthier meals out of pantry staples.
Since 70 percent of the food in local pantries comes from The Greater Boston Food Bank, members of the Hunger Network also requested improved food from that source and the response has been positive.
The Food Bank has always had a nutrition department but they recently hired a doctor who is in charge of public health, Swain said. Dr. Kathryn Brodowski, director of Public Health and Research, is working to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for food bank clients.
“All of these activities to move more towards fresh produce and more towards canned foods that have lower sodium, fat and sugar have really been a movement,” she said.
A farm tractor with containers donated by Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank heads out to the fields to pick up sweet potatoes. Cape Cod Five also donated the seed to plant this crop donation and beverages and food for volunteers.
Foods to Encourage
The Hunger Network developed the Foods to Encourage program about four years ago. It focused on helping food pantry clients, who tend to have a higher prevalence of diabetes and hypertension, she added.
The Foods to Encourage program entered a new phase in 2015 that includes health monitoring, thanks to a $50,000 grant from Cape Cod Healthcare’s Community Benefits program. The grant was used to start a pilot program at the Falmouth Service Center that featured volunteer nurses who take pantry clients’ blood pressure and monitor their blood sugar. Those who choose to participate in the program get a bag of fresh fruits and vegetables every week.
Nutritionists like Concra are on hand to do cooking demonstrations and hand out healthy recipes so clients know how to prepare the fresh food in a way that maximizes nutrition.
“We just did a survey and our clients favorite, favorite items are the fresh fruits and vegetables,” Swain said. “By far, that came out loud and clear and they want more of them. In looking at non-perishables, they tell us they don’t like all the preservatives in their food. They want organic or they want low sodium or low sugar.”
Health Benefits Are Clear
In addition to tasting better, the fresh food has had a remarkable impact on participants’ health.
“We collected data and we found a marked improvement in blood pressure and glucose levels for clients who repeatedly came for monitoring,” said Swain. “Some people have had their medication lowered. Some people have gotten off medication. Really huge wonderful changes have happened to people’s health as a result of what we’re doing.”
The program was so successful that Community Benefits followed up the original grant with a second grant for $30,000 so the program could be replicated in other pantries, said Lisa Guyon, director of Community Benefits.
“From the hospital perspective, we always ask how we can build a healthier community with healthier access points,” Guyon said. “We really wanted to invest in something that would improve health that could be sustained after the initial investment.”
The Foods to Encourage program has now expanded to the Bourne Friends Food Pantry, The Family Pantry of Cape Cod in Harwich and pantries in Orleans and Wellfleet that are run by Lower Cape Outreach Council.
Larry Marsland, chief executive officer of Lower Cape Outreach is thrilled with the program and working to seek funding to expand it to all eight of the pantries they run on the Lower Cape.
“There are so many pluses to this program besides the ones applauded originally,” Marsland said. “Contact with a community is an extraordinary thing for lots of older people. It gives people a sense of ownership about their health, a sense of empowerment that there are things they can do to improve their circumstances.”
About 30 people attend the program every Tuesday morning at the Orleans United Methodist Church and an average of 45 regulars attend the Tuesday night Wellfleet program at the Wellfleet United Methodist Church. The Wellfleet program also includes a well-received community meal. The programs run through December 19, but Marsland hopes to continue and expand the programs.
Fresh – and Local
In addition to seeking healthier donations, many food pantries like the ones in Falmouth, Bourne, Harwich and the Lower Cape also have community gardens where volunteers grow produce for pantry clients. Town community gardens like the one in Brewster have a cooler in place for gardeners to make donations to local pantries and a volunteer delivers the food.
For the third year in a row, Tim Friary who runs Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable has donated a sizable portion of his crop to local pantries. Three years ago, he donated one ton of organic butternut squash. Last year he donated two and a half tons of organic sweet potatoes. This year he donated three tons of a combination of both.
“I just think it’s a good idea,” Friary said. “There’s a huge hunger need on Cape Cod, a lot of elderly and a lot of younger people too. I figure I can do my part.”
[Above Featured Photo: Cape Cod Hunger Network co-chair Kim Concra and Sagamore Beach resident and Sturgis Charter School parent volunteer Jamie Gavin sorted organic sweet potatoes destined for local food pantries in the greenhouse at Cape Cod Organic Farm this past September.]