Like many local families, food pantries today are struggling with the high price of groceries. Canned ravioli, macaroni and cheese, and ramen noodles are common staples at food pantries, mainly because they are inexpensive to purchase and often are among the foods donated to food pantries. But are they really what food pantry clients need? Probably not.
What food pantry clients need are the same foods that you and I buy: milk, eggs, lean meats, fresh vegetables and fresh fruits. The problem is these nutritionally dense foods cost much more than highly processed foods laden with fat and calories, such as frozen dinners and fast food. Research shows that low-income individuals are significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than those who are financially well off — and given the low price of high-calorie foods, that's really no surprise.
In an effort to not just feed our hungry neighbors but feed them well, Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry has recently instituted three major changes. First, we committed to increasing the amount of lean meat and low-fat dairy products we provide. Clients now receive two meat choices and two dairy choices at each visit. Overall, the food pantry distributes 2,400 pieces of frozen meat and 2,400 dairy items every month.
Second, we organize "produce rescues" every week from Trader Joe's in Oak Park, Whole Foods in River Forest and Ultra Foods in Forest Park. Volunteers pick up fresh, but not perfect, produce from these grocery stores, and pantry clients receive at least one choice of fresh produce at each visit.
Finally, we have launched a nutrition program sponsored by a "Kraft Foods Feeding Possibilities" grant via the Greater Chicago Food Depository. This grant funded the services of a registered dietician, Maria Delis, who has worked with the pantry to develop a program that educates clients on healthful food choices and preparation. Over five months, Maria will be available on site during many food distributions to provide education, tastings and recipes for commonly available food pantry foods. After the grant period expires, the pantry hopes to continue the program with nutrition students from local colleges.
But getting volunteers from colleges solves only part of the puzzle. Good food is expensive. Running a bevy of commercial refrigerators and freezers is expensive. Even recycling cardboard boxes (three dumpsters full every week!) is expensive.
We can leverage our food dollars to a striking advantage: For every dollar donated, we can purchase nearly $11 worth of food through the Greater Chicago Food Depository. And we keep our staffing costs low by using volunteers for more than 900 hours of labor each month. But we need your help. With only three weeks left in the year, only 23 percent of expected holiday cash donations have arrived.
It is a financial challenge to provide more nutritious offerings, but Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry is committed to breaking the cycle of poverty and obesity for our clients. Your donation today will allow us to continue that mission. Please send a generous check made out to Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry or click the "Donate Now" button on our secure website, www.oprffoodpantry.org. Together we can help provide our hungry neighbors with the foods they need to stay healthy.
Kathy Russell is the executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry and Michele Zurakowski is the director of operations.