Sunday, December 6, 2009

Food Charities Struggle to Offer Healthy Options

By: Kevin Hardy

CHATTANOOGA (Dec 3, 2009) - When it comes to providing food to the hungry and poor, nutrition sometimes can be a low priority.

Workers with local food banks and community kitchens say providing wholesome, nutritious meals to their clients can be a struggle. With many charities relying heavily on donations, providing healthy food choices sometimes is not an option. And fresh fruits and vegetables almost always are more expensive than processed foods, providers say.

"Health is a significant factor in our menu planning, but the primary concern is eliminating hunger," said Jens Christensen, director of marketing at the Chattanooga Commmunity Kitchen, which will serve about 170,000 meals this year.

Mr. Christensen said employees try to provide balanced meals for their clients, but relying on donated ingredients creates real hurdles for cooks. The Community Kitchen's 2009 food budget is only $1,500, he said, so cash is reserved for essential items that don't come in as donations.

"This creates a great challenge in menu planning," he said. "Unlike most restaurants and businesses that serve food, we don't select a menu and then acquire the ingredients -- we choose our menu based on what we have."

Gary Paul, development director at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, said that organization notices a similar struggle with distributing the 9 million pounds of food donated annually.

"Basically, we're stewards of what's donated," he said. "The food, the money -- all that comes from the community. We're just stewards of those gifts."

The food bank collects donations of leftover prepared food from local Red Lobster, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Long John Silver's restaurants, Mr. Paul said. Though the foods oftentimes are high in calories and fat, the donations go a long way in feeding the hungry in the area, he said.

"We take what they give us," Mr. Paul said. "And we try to use it all, which we do."

Some groups say choosing their own ingredients makes meal planning easier.

At Providence Ministries in Dalton, Ga., cooks select most ingredients that go into the 500 meals a day served to community members in need. Director Roy Johnson said the program usually is able to provide balanced meals with several choices of entrees, vegetables and side items at each of its three daily meals.

"This is not a soup kitchen," he said. "We serve great meals down here."

Mr. Johnson said Providence has been blessed by a giving community and the ability to purchase many ingredients on its own. Still, he said, the clientele has increased dramatically throughout the recession.

"We're seeing people that we had never seen before, people who never had to apply for assistance for anything before," he said.

Also dealing with increased numbers of clients, the Salvation Army has started taking its own steps to ensure healthy food choices in the three meals it serves each day, spokeswoman Kimberly George said.

The organization recently hired a professional chef who picks nutritious ingredients and make wholesome meals, she said. The chef also will teach clients how to cook for themselves, she said.

The Salvation Army served more than 125,000 meals in its 2009 fiscal year, she said, and throughout the last year has seen an increase in clients in all of its social services.

"In some areas it's twice the amount we saw last year," she said.

The Salvation Army and the Chattanooga Area Food Bank recently installed on-site gardens to provide low-cost fresh vegetables and herbs to clients.

"Our hope is to encourage people to live a healthier lifestyle," Mr. Paul said. "And a lot of that is growing your own food."

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