Food & DrinkThe Locavore

Athens Food Bank’s Mobile Pantry Offers Fresh Produce, Not Just Cans

Last Wednesday by 3:55 p.m., the tables were arranged and ready to go at Alps Road Elementary. In a few minutes, select students and their families would arrive to peruse rows of produce—eight varieties in all, including potatoes, turnips, radishes and blackberries. As each family arrived, they grabbed a box and, like so many Athenians who meander through the tables at the Athens Farmers Market each Saturday, began to shop.

You might never guess that this school event, with table after table replete with fresh and often local produce, was in fact a mobile food pantry. And that’s the point.

The market-style setup is new approach to food distribution. Most school feeding programs give out prepared boxes. Beegee Elder, child nutrition manager at the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, thinks offering a shopping experience returns autonomy to the families they serve. “They feel a part of the selection process, like ‘I get to choose what I’m going to bring home to my family,’” Elder says. “It’s not some handout.”

The October school pantry was the second one held at Alps Road Elementary and the fourth fresh-food-focused school pantry the food bank has put on since December 2015. Childhood Nutrition Coordinator Molly Canfield estimates that around 65 families are served at each pantry.

With the help of grant funds, Elder and her team were able to round out their pantry with cooking demonstrations and nutrition education. “It’s a bigger project this year than it was last year,” says Elder. “It’s more holistic.”

Offering fresh food is expensive, and Elder’s team recognized that grant dollars could only cover so much. Canfield spearheaded several successful fundraising efforts this summer. “Thankfully, people are starting to understand the importance of providing fresh produce to families in need,” she says.

Canfield receives regular donations from big-box stores like Publix and Walmart, which often drop off good-quality, seasonal produce. Beyond that, Canfield wants to involve as many local sources for produce as possible. “My personal goal is to get two local items into each pantry,” she says.

In 2015, the Athens Land Trust’s West Broad Market Garden donated produce for each school pantry, and this year the CSA Collective Harvest has jumped on board, donating up to 50 pounds—about 10 pounds from each farm—a week over the summer. Plus, a little extra: If you’re one of the folks who forgets a pickup now and again, your food is likely making its way to the food bank.

Food banks and feeding programs across the country have been challenging themselves to offer more fresh foods because they’re healthier for the families. A fresh, raw tomato is healthier than its stewed, canned cousin. But the canned item has always been a staple of food banks. Though these types of foods are high in sodium, sugars and fats, families gravitate to these kinds of foods, says Elder, because they tend to be cheaper, and they keep. That’s important for someone who doesn’t know where the next paycheck is coming from. “Food insecurity and shelf-stable food go hand in hand,” she says.

One-fifth of Clarke County residents have limited access to healthy foods. School pantry programs have a history of leveraging the school campus to connect families to community resources. For one mother Canfield met at a previous pantry, local organic kale was an unexpected and welcome sight. “She said, ‘I can’t believe you have that. I love kale, and it’s hard to get.’ That was a cool thing,” Canfield says.

Elder says they try to offer produce the families want, and they’ll send recipe cards home with suggestions for how to cook unfamiliar items. Still, not all attempts are successful. “It’s funny, because some families will come back and say, ‘My kids hated the recipe.’ Others love it.” The feedback is important, says Elder, because the Food Bank’s aim is to help these families for the immediate and long-term future.

“Everyone should have access to the healthiest, most nutritious food,” she says. “That’s the goal of what we’re doing here.”