The need and value of food banks is undeniable. They are a lifeline for many vulnerable people who struggle daily to provide basic needs for themselves and their families.
This is true even in the best of times. At a time like this, with the pandemic disrupting the economy and hurting those with lower incomes the hardest, they are particularly critical. Feeding America reports a 60% increase in the number of people seeking food bank assistance during the pandemic. The anti-hunger agency also reports that between March and June, four of every 10 people who got food from emergency food banks had not sought such assistance before the pandemic.
In Connecticut, one example of this dire need was evidenced when thousands of carloads of people sought food at a drive-through emergency food bank in October at East Hartford’s Rentschler Field. Another, more local example, occurred last week in Norwich when cars began lining up hours before the Connecticut Food Bank’s scheduled 11:30 a.m. start time for distribution of 450 turkeys.
With so much hunger to combat, and officials and volunteers at numerous food banks and anti-poverty agencies struggling to meet the food demands at a time when food donations have been declining, the findings of a recent report by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity point out a distressing paradox. Because the food provided by these emergency food banks skews toward processed, higher sodium and higher sugar options, they contribute to the country’s growing problem of obesity, the report published in October in PLOS ONE concludes.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 35% of Black adults, more than 30% of Hispanic adults and between 25% and 29% of white adults are obese. These numbers have been increasing for decades and the connection between obesity rates and diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are clear.
It’s certainly not optimal if the food filling an immediate need is also contributing to long-term ill health.
The Rudd Center report’s findings actually are far from surprising for those who work to combat hunger. Indeed, there is an understanding that more fresh foods and nutrient-rich foods must become food bank staples. There have been increasing efforts in recent years to make this happen. Partnerships between food banks and local farmers have increased, as have efforts to boost the number of community and urban gardens to expand the availability of fresh vegetables and fruits. Education programming about good nutrition and its link to preventing or better managing chronic health issues also are on the rise within anti-hunger agencies.
These all are sound efforts and ones we commend and hope continue. But the challenges also have to be recognized. To feed so many, large amounts of food must be acquired and safely stored. Such nonperishable items, unfortunately, tend to be less healthy.
What we cannot support is a shift among food banks to a paternalistic system that more rigidly dictates what food items can be distributed through emergency food banks and eliminates the ability of recipients to include some amount of desserts or convenience foods in their food bags and baskets.
Such a system would be reminiscent of industrialist Henry Ford’s 1914 decision to tie a dramatic increase in workers’ salaries to adherence to a rigid set of rules Ford devised to force his many immigrant employees to be what he considered better Americans. Those who accepted the conditions in order to receive the much-needed boost in their finances subjected themselves to home inspections without notice and a dizzying array of questions about everything from alcohol consumption to their children’s school attendance.
Just as Ford’s army of morality police was an example of shocking paternalism, so, too, would be a shift toward strict nutrition policing within food bank policies. Increased education and access to a wider variety of nutritious offerings is a more appropriate plan and one toward which food bank officials should continue to work.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.