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A recent report from Feeding America notes that more than 46 million people across the United States and Puerto Rico use their food banks. Every day, especially around this time of year, many stores offer a way for shoppers to donate food to the hungry. Now, one organization is working to ensure that the donated food isn’t highly processed and unhealthy.
After going to school to become a nutritionist, PreventObesity.net Leader Ruthi Solari attended a conference centered around the concept of food as medicine. She began to consider the nutritional quality of foods generally donated to food banks and food pantries, and wondered how we could nourish people in need instead of just feeding them.
“When I found out about the statistics on food insecurity in America, I thought ‘we need to make sure that the food they receive is healthy,’ especially since a quarter of food pantry patrons are children,” she explains. “We really need to make sure these kids and the others have access to healthy foods.”
Ruthi started volunteering at local food drives and distributing lists of the most-needed healthy items. She soon realized that there was a definite need for her ideas to be implemented on a broader level, and she founded SuperFood Drive in 2009. Based in San Diego, California, SuperFood Drive is a nonprofit organization focused on hunger and nutrition education and advocacy, as opposed to actual food distribution.
“Others do a great job of distributing food, so our focus is on educating the donor population so that we can increase the nutrition content of donated foods,” Ruthi says.
Ruthi began to reach out to food bank organizations to offer her nutrition experience in helping them ensure they were offering healthy, nutritious options to the hungry. Unfortunately, at the beginning, the response she received was that their priority was putting food in bellies, not the nutritional quality of that food.
Over the past few years, however, the landscape has changed. According to Ruthi, more and more food banks are putting a new focus on health, and are more receptive to the strategies she’s devised through SuperFood Drive. Now, she helps food pantries across the country create nutrition strategies and connect with other local organizations that can help them. She also provides support for their food drives through marketing, education and outreach.
As part of the education programs the group offers, Ruthi works with schools to support food drives that also educate students on nutrition and hunger. “It’s a great opportunity to educate youth on nutrition, and empower them be the change. And they’ll go to their parents and explain what types of healthy food they can donate.”
The group is also currently running the SuperKids for SuperFoods service learning program, through which 50,000 school children in California are learning about hunger and healthy eating over the course of a six-week program.
Ruthi encourages everyone to get involved in their own communities to end hunger and help nourish those who need it most. She recommends contacting your local food bank or pantry to see what type of support would be most beneficial to them―it could be anything from money or healthy food donations to volunteering time to distribute or cook for the hungry.
There are also simple ways to ensure that any food you donate this holiday season (and beyond!) is healthy and nutritious. Instead of buying ramen noodles or the cheapest available item, consider options like whole wheat pasta instead of regular pasta, low-sodium soups and vegetables canned in water, or whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, whole grain cereal, or rolled oats.
“We need to challenge the status quo around filling empty stomachs. It’s not enough to fill them, we’ve got to focus on health to really help the people that need it most,” she says, because “the opposite of hungry is not full—it’s healthy.”