Healthy Food Donations

— Written By Tracy Davis and last updated by
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Hands adding food to donation box.

During the past 18 months, N.C. Cooperative Extension has been working with community partners to enhance the availability and nutritional quality of foods provided through food pantries, soup kitchens, and other food assistance organizations. Thanks to the many hours of volunteer work, passionate community members, and generous donors we have made great strides. Thus far, over 700 pounds of locally raised beef have been donated and nearly $10,000 worth of locally grown fresh vegetables have been planted, harvested, packed, and delivered to food pantries for distribution to Rutherford County families.

This Farm to Pantry Project is part of an over-arching umbrella of projects that focus on creating greater access to nutritious food, empowering families to make healthier choices, expanding nutrition education, and reducing food insecurity. While our initial steps have proved successful, there is still much work ahead.

In addition to the Farm to Pantry Project which focuses on fresh produce and meats, the Healthy Food Donation Project promotes nutritious shelf-stable foods. Food pantries and other food assistance organizations in our county depend on larger food banks, such as Second Harvest or MANNA, to supply a portion of their food; the rest comes from grants and foods donated by local citizens. Unfortunately, not all donated foods meet nutritional quality recommendations. About 74 percent of items donated to food banks and food pantries are highly processed, resulting in an over-abundance of high sodium, high fat, and high sugar foods.

In an effort to promote healthier donations, N.C. Cooperative Extension has created a Healthy Food Donation List that businesses, civic organizations, volunteer groups, and individuals can use to select items for donation. This list is an excellent reference for groups organizing a community food drive. Individuals can also utilize the list for both personal use and for donation purposes. If you are cleaning out your pantry at home, you can refer to the list to see which items would be appropriate to donate. You can also use the list to choose healthier foods for yourself as well as purchasing an extra item or two to donate.

Encouraging healthier food donations to local pantries is just one aspect of our initiative to improve food access. N.C. Cooperative Extension, along with the Rutherford County Food Council, Community Health Council, and other partners are collaborating on a variety of projects. Support is available for groups starting community or school gardens as well as for first-time home gardeners who want to grow their own food. One of the most beneficial ways we can help people who face food insecurity is to provide the knowledge and skills to grow food for themselves.

Work is also underway on the Mini Kitchen Kit Project to provide small cooking appliances, utensils, and recipes. These kits are intended to provide a way for families to prepare healthy meals even if they do not have a working stove. Other projects include securing funding to conduct more nutrition and cooking education classes and providing these opportunities in more areas of the county. We also offer in-person and virtual presentations for community groups on the local food system and the social, environmental, health, and economic impact of poor nutrition and food insecurity.

Increasing access to fresh, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food is bigger work than any one of us can do alone. Despite a very global and complicated food system, there are many strategies that we can utilize to improve our own local food system and the overall health of our county citizens. By working together to provide for the nutritional needs of all community members, we are improving the social, environmental, and physical health of our entire community.