Food banks sometimes struggle to fill their coffers with enough food to supply their community. Why, then, would a food bank that serves one of the country’s largest metro areas decide to start rejecting donations?

Because, quite simply, they have a duty to serve their community the best food they can – instead of just whatever they can get.

As the largest food bank in Washington D.C., Capital Area Food Bank is similar to many across the country. Each year, millions of pounds of food roll through their doors and are then distributed back to members of the community and their more than 400 non-profit partners. Like other community food banks, Capital Area Food Bank relies on the donations of religious organizations, non-profit sponsors, and even government grants to continue their work in the Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland areas. The actual food, however, often comes from local grocery stores, food warehouses, and restaurants.

Capital Area Food Bank President and CEO Nancy Roman explains why her organization is revolutionizing how donated food is accepted, processed, and distributed to people in need.

A few years ago, the food bank noticed that donations were plentiful, but they weren’t exactly healthy. Truck after truck rolled in with sugar-laden soda and leftover holiday candy. While an occasional treat is nice, these foods are seriously lacking in nutrition and cannot sustainably feed families. So the group decided to take action.

To start, they created a wellness rating system that let them grade foods on healthfulness. This scale is a nutrition tracker of sorts. It takes into account a food’s salt, sugar, and fiber content. Thanks to the wellness rating, certain foods — such as soda — were soon rejected completely, and the needle started inching forward towards healthy and nutritious foods. Fruits and vegetable donations increased, too. But one thing remained woefully abundant: donations of processed foods.

grocery store

“Our inventory looks a lot like what Americans eat,” says Nancy Roman, Capital Area Food Bank President and CEO. “There’s a lot of processed food consumed in this country, so not surprisingly, we were getting it. We made a lot of progress [with the wellness ratings]. We moved the dial of healthy foods from 52 to 89 percent.”

It was against that remaining percentage, however, that Roman decided to start investing her greatest energy. “When I looked at that last mile, the last 18 percent that didn’t check the box of wellness food, you could see that it was really a lot of well-intentioned retail donations,” Roman says.

From sheet cakes to vegetables

Roman recalls the story of the “exploding sheet cakes” to illustrate how retailers affected the food bank’s supply — and how they’re now helping recreate it.

One day, while walking through the warehouse, Roman noticed loads of sheet cakes. When she inquired why the food bank had so many sheet cakes, she was told their rules require only a small percentage of the food they give to their clients be snacks. The large cakes, as it turns out, didn’t fit into that balance.

She found that most of the sheet cakes were coming from a single donor. She wrote to that donor and explained that she and the organization deeply appreciated the work their grocery store had done in the past, but they could no longer accept these sheet cakes in good conscience. The sheet cake episode allowed Roman one of her first chances to redefine how Capital Area Food Bank would establish rules for their clients.

“It’s always fun when you see the needle of progress moving, but then it stops moving. I realized we couldn’t move it further without doing it in partnership with our donors,” Roman says. “I tried to have careful, respectful discussions with the donors.” Those discussions paid off. The grocery store responded, and their donations changed.

bags of red potatoes

The retail community, restaurants, and partners have responded in kind, too. More fruits and vegetables are rolling in, while soda and leftover candy don’t even make it onto the trucks. “Our drivers are empowered — if there’s a full bucket with Halloween candy, they know to turn it away,” Roman says.

Donations are improving, too. The organization received an $80,000 grant last year to supply their community with greens, and they’ve established a fund for buying fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

The changes, as Roman points out, were an effort to keep up with the shifting attitudes and philosophies of the American public at large. But their clients were craving these changes, too.

Nancy Roman quote

“This has really been demand driven. The clients have been hearing from their doctors for years that they need to eat better,” she says. “Of all the people we’re serving, 49 percent have high blood pressure or heart disease. Twenty-three percent have diabetes or live with a diabetic. So they’re well aware that they’re not supposed to have [processed] food. Unfortunately, vegetables are hard to get inexpensively, so they love the produce they’re getting. Our clients would rather have vegetables than leftover candy.”

Of course, as the food deliveries change, so do the needs of the clients. That’s where the Capital Area Food Bank’s second level of service really shines.

Making health accessible

Food education is particularly important for the food bank and its non-profit partners. Along with delivering food, they’re working to educate their clients and make them more comfortable with healthy foods.

“The medical community has done a great job of telling people what they should do. The hard part is doing it. If you live in a low-income neighborhood, chances are you don’t have a grocery store in your neighborhood, and chances are the corner store has mostly processed food, maybe a little bit of fresh produce. Chances are that transportation is challenging, so it’s hard for you to get to a farmers’ market or a grocery store that might be out of your neighborhood. Chances are you’re surrounded by fast food options,” Roman says. “So they know they should be eating less sugar in everything, but it’s the next layer of access. That’s why our recipes are so important.”

crate of watermelons

Roman is referring to the food bank’s collection of 95 “cheap, fast, and tasty” recipes. Each recipe is designed to make the transition from drive-thru dinners to healthful home-cooked meals easier and more attainable for their clients, many of whom may be first-time cooks.

While the food bank’s journey hasn’t been lightning swift or as painless as they would hope, Roman says their goals of promoting healthier diets for the communities they serve is one they’ll gladly keep pressing. If they waiver in their dedication to their philosophy, they need only sit with someone from their community to understand the real and lasting impact they’re having.

Roman recalls talking with a single mom at an elementary school where the food bank and partner non-profits work. “She was laughing with joy about the food that she had received. She was telling me how wonderful it was that her children were experiencing vegetables for the first time,” Roman recalls. “You’re seeing first-hand what you know is happening and what you’re hearing about, but here’s this woman telling you they loved the sautéed cabbage.” That, Roman says, is reason enough to keep going.

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Marion Nestle

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