Why poverty equals obesity: Good food is expensive

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Kathy Russell and Michele Zurakowski

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.

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Reader Comments

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Violet Aura  

Posted: December 16th, 2010 1:40 PM

Thank you for responding to me, Kathy. I would direct you to a site:http://www.pcrm.org/about/ The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine advocates for a change in the diet pyramid put out by the USDA. Meat and dairy are not as healthy as you might think. And the greater point is that there are plant-based foods that are both wholesome and nutrient-dense, as well as far more cost-effective. This way, each client can go home with more food!

Kathy Russell, Executive Director, OPRF Food Pantry from River Forest Il  

Posted: December 15th, 2010 11:07 PM

We do not refrigerate most of our produce and we do not pay for any of our produce, it is rescued from local grocery stores. Ou focus is on nutrient dense foods that our clients can cook easily and that we can obtain at low cost. We do purchase as much whole grain as possible within our network of vendors. Providing healthful options and teaching good nutrition is our goal.

Violet Aura  

Posted: December 15th, 2010 7:34 PM

I would like to find other people who agree with me about this. I feel that the funds could be stretched much further by eliminating flesh foods. I don't know where the food pantries store their food but most produce can (and actually should) be not refrigerated. Tomatoes are a biggie--they lose their flavor when refrigerated. I have made my own almond mylk in a regular blender when Caputo's had the nuts on sale for about $2 a pound! It's cheaper than soymilk!

Violet Aura  

Posted: December 15th, 2010 5:34 PM

It is far better to provide bags of legumes, bulk old-fashioned oats from Whole Foods (organic and much cheaper than in the box), and other staples like brown rice and sugar from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Why are fresh produce not allowed at food pantries?! You are supposed to keep most fruits unrefrigerated anyhow and potatoes and onions can be stored in a dry, cool place and are cheap and nutricious (as are sweet potatoes--both if baked). Caputo's in Elmwood Park has great prices!

Violet Aura  

Posted: December 15th, 2010 5:30 PM

Okay, I will take a deep breath because this sort of thing is frustrating to read. I applaud you for helping to feed those with current financial issues. As a vegetarian for over 25 years, along with living a very simple lifestyle, I can tell you that meat and dairy are very expensive and unncessary! I have been vegan before (and will be shortly again), and do not consume any animal flesh. Meat and dairy have no fiber. Casein, a milk protein, is cited in allergies and we know about lactose.

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