A new Philadelphia food pantry is breaking with custom to supply only nutritious foods to clients.
The effort is part of a new initiative which seeks to connect families with the food and resources they need to eat more healthily. The Green Light Pantry is located at the Drueding Center near Fourth Street and Girard Avenue.
The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger created the program after surveying pantry clients. Results showed that almost 70 percent of families going to pantries have to feed someone with a diet-related chronic disease like diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol.
The coalition enrolled families based on nutritional need.
Julie Zaebst, the coalition’s interim executive director, said providing more nutritious foods–with less sugar or salt, for example–can be an important tool for improving health. Dietitian, Tanya Sen, uses U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines to select all the food.
“We are only serving, for instance, whole grain bread and cereal and tortillas,” Zaebst said. “We’re only serving brown rice. There are no canned goods that are high in sodium or high in sugar. There’s nothing that contains high-fructose corn syrup. Everything in the pantry that they have to choose from is nutritious and designed to meet folks’ dietary needs.”
To strech dollars, food pantries are sometimes stuck supplying cheap food.
“Anybody who goes to shop at the grocery store knows that often the nutritious choice is the more expensive choice,” Zaebst said. “The same is true, multiplied by a thousand, in the food pantry system.”
Cheap options can hurt health. For example, canned fruits may be swimming in corn syrup and boxed mac-and-cheese is often loaded with salt, Zaebst said.
The Green Light Pantries are sponsored by Stroehmann Bakeries, Citizens Bank Foundation and the Pincus Fund for Hunger Relief.
Zaebst said she hopes other food pantries will be able to begin offering more nutritious foods but said she recognizes the financial commitment it takes.
“We are hopeful that we’re gonna learn some lessons through working on these two pantries that can be applied to other pantries that maybe don’t have the same resources,” Zaebst said.
To make the finances work, the coalition has limited the number of clients. With 50 families at the Drueding Center and another 50 at the Casa del Carmen, near Fifth and Wingohocking streets, the program is already at capacity.
Different from some pantries where food is pre-packed for pick-up, Green Light Pantry clients “shop” for what they want. Pantry staff and volunteers help clients build balanced meals.
All participants are also automatically enrolled in nutrition education classes.