Healthy donations are the foundation of local food pantries
Giving back to the community is encouraged year-round.
It's no secret, though, that the holidays really inspire people to get involved and make a difference in the lives of those in need, often by donating to food pantries.
Yet, just as important as making an impact is ensuring the impact is a healthy one.
The University of Wisconsin-Extension works to promote donations of healthy food to food pantries statewide. The hope is that increasing the healthy food choices within pantries will both combat food insecurity and also prevent diet-related diseases stemming from poor nutrition, which, in turn, can reduce health care costs.
According to a report published in Health Services Research Journal, food insecurity accounts for more than $77 billion in health care costs in the United States each year.
The UW-Extension in Brown County has made the healthy food pantry initiative a focus of its county health improvement plan. They've even coined the slogan "Food Drive Five" to help those donating know exactly the kinds of healthy foods with which pantries are looking to stock their shelves.
The Food Drive Five includes: Protein-rich foods such as nuts, seafood and poultry, fruits, either packed in juice, dried or sauced, soups containing protein and vegetables, whole grain pasta and cereal and colorful vegetables.
Food pantries have historically lacked those sorts of healthy foods, said Karen Early, coordinator of Brown County UW-Extension's FoodWIse program.
Early said outlining pantry needs has encouraged more donations. It has also influenced already generous people to be more purposeful with their contributions by reducing donations of foods with saturated fats, added sugars and sodium, as well as significantly reducing the amount of expired food donations and those with damaged or opened packaging.
"It's true to the saying that when you need something, you just have to ask," she said. "By following these healthy guidelines, people can know their donations are really doing good for pantry families and those who temporarily cannot afford adequate food."
Data collected from the annual Scouting for Food food drive organized by the Boy Scouts of America Bay-Lakes Council demonstrates the impact of that message.
Healthy food donations are up about 10 percent in Brown County since 2012, while "other donations" fell by about the same amount. One of the biggest improvements, Early said, is a 15 percent increase in donations of nutrient-dense vegetables.
Better, healthier options at food pantries can help decrease cases of Type 2 diabetes, obesity and coronary heart disease, said Jennifer Schnell, director of rehabilitation at Aurora BayCare Medical Center and chairwoman of the county's food and nutrition task force.
"Fifty percent of all pantry food comes from donations," she said. "If we have those donating, donating the rights kinds of things, we're able to help people — and in more ways than seem obvious."
After all, a well-balanced diet is the foundation to leading a positive, productive lifestyle.
Mary Ginnebaugh, president of Presbyterian Pantry in Green Bay, which serves nearly 10,000 people annually, said it's uplifting that so many are interested in and committed to helping others get food with nutritional value.
She encourages those who want to donate to check-in with her pantry and others about current needs and to arrange times to drop off fresh fruit and vegetables.To further ensure healthy donations, she added, those giving canned vegetables and meats should seek out low sodium options.