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Healthy Food Drive for Thanksgiving Is Lifesaving

November 16, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will be donating food to those in need, collecting canned goods and other items to be stocked in homeless shelters and at food pantries.

One nonprofit wants to make sure that people on the receiving end are eating healthy, especially since, in some cases, the food they consume is the closest thing they have to medicine in treating a number of health conditions.

The SuperFood Drive is an organization that operates on the belief that every man, woman, and child should have nutritious food that is essential for an active and healthy life, especially around the holidays.

The San Fransisco-based nonprofit is committed to helping improve the health of the hungry, not just by getting nutritious food into their hands, but by starting a nationwide discussion about policies at food banks and how to assure that their clients have access to wholesome items.

Ruthi Solari, SuperFood Drive’s founder and executive director—and a clinical nutritionist by trade—was inspired to create the movement while volunteering for a local food bank. She immediately noticed a stark difference in the nutritional quality of food she was encouraging her clients to eat and the foods that were being donated to food banks.

Most of the food being donated was highly processed and high in fat, sugar, and sodium, items like macaroni and cheese, top ramen, and sweet cereals.

“Food pantries still get barrels full of fat-laden food products, and our vision is that every barrel gets filled with nutrient-dense, affordable, non-perishable foods that will nourish the individuals who receive them,” she said. “Instead of reaching to the back of your pantry for something that you don’t want, we encourage you to give the gift of nutritious, shelf-stable food.”

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The organization believes that healthy food access is a social issue, one of food justice, and that hunger relief agencies must help them address the issue among the more vulnerable populations they serve—especially since proper nutrition can aid in alleviating the cycle of poverty and disease.

“So many people who live in food deserts are unable to access nutritious food because they lack affordable access to healthy food such as fresh produce and whole grains, transportation to a place that does provide healthy food, or knowledge and resources to prepare food to make a healthy meal,” Solari said.

Dignity and equality are also at stake, as one volunteer sees it—basic human rights should be available to all, and not just the bare minimum, asserting, “What is education if it is crappy, and what is food if it perpetuates diet-related disease? We have an opportunity to shift the perspective of food to be seen as nourishment and medicine.”

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Another volunteer, Tiffany Rios, who is also a Registered Dietitian, has given both food bank resources and affordable recipes from Superfood Drive to her patients, people who didn’t think they could afford to make healthy meals. Naturally, they saw their blood sugar levels improve.

“Working with patients, I saw firsthand how people who are most vulnerable to illnesses such as diabetes and obesity often struggle to put healthy food on the table due to financial limitations,” she said. “Food insecurity and hunger exists year-round.”

Indeed, food must often supplement medicine. One San-Diego based woman who high blood pressure was trying to control her hypertension through her diet, since she couldn’t afford prescription medication, and the healthy food she was able to procure from a participating pantry made a big difference.

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“Our vision is that when an individual is struggling with basic needs, that person can go to a nutrition pantry and access healthy food, nutrition education and other supportive resources to help people get back on their feet and feel supported and healthy in the process.”

In its first year, SuperFood Drive had the support of dozens of organizations in the San Diego county.

That impact is furthered by schools that host food drives each year while receiving education about food insecurity and a lesson in empowerment to be social change agents for healthy hunger relief. Their program SuperKids for Superfoods provides a service learning curriculum that concludes with a healthy food drive to benefit their local community.

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“We have multiple schools who opt to conduct a food drive for their own peers. The students who receive the food stay anonymous, but the kids know that they are collecting healthy food for their own peers. It is really powerful,” said Solari.

A sister program, Hunger Bytes, puts forth a similar effort while also engaging youth through technology by using their phones to create videos about their projects. Then, educational and training programs were implemented at schools, which host food drives all over the country each year, and for food pantries.

“We must shift how and what we donate. The change can be simple but will make a big impact,” she says. “Food bank clients with unique dietary needs can struggle to get food that works for them.”

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Some of these tips are simple ways we can all tweak what we donate.

  • For those irreplaceable traditional sweet items like cranberry sauce and fruit jello, purchase versions labeled “no sugar added” to decrease sugar intake.
  • Because Thanksgiving is often a carb-filled holiday, so donate canned or dried vegetables with low sodium to make sure people get their greens in.
  • One thing that usually doesn’t get donated is spices, which can really spruce someone’s holiday meal. Some classic fall spices are cinnamon, nutmeg and rosemary, which are much healthier and provide just as much flavor than adding salt in recipes.
  • Packaged raw unsalted nuts such as walnuts, almonds and pecans add healthy fat and protein to traditional holiday meals.

When it comes to just how much healthy food has been donated to date, it’s an impossible number to track, since people began hosting their own drives without reporting back to Superfood—which is exactly what they wanted to happen.

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While they are located in California, there are partnerships and SuperFood Drive ambassadors, in cities and states across the U.S. including Minneapolis, MN; East Hampton, NY; and Seattle, WA.

Currently, their primary program is the Nutrition Pantry Program in which the Superfood team works with food pantries over the course of 3-6 months to help them become certified as nutrition pantries.

If you want to host your own drive, check out this link for tips.

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