food pantry
Cheryl Uecker selects fresh produce from the shelves of the Goodman Community Center’s food pantry. The pantry, like others in the area, is starting an effort to get more nutritious foods into the hands of the people it serves. JOHN HART — State Journal

Madison area food pantries are using new strategies to try to get healthier food to those who can’t afford to shop for it.

Alongside the traditional boxes of macaroni and cheese and jars of peanut butter, area pantries began offering produce from their own gardens. Now with the harvest over, pantries are starting education campaigns to get donors to think healthier.

At the Goodman Community Center food pantry, people are paying more attention to what’s in their food, said Kathy Utley, the center’s food pantry coordinator.

“They are reading our labels just like they would in a grocery store,” Utley said. “They are looking for things that are lower in sodium, that don’t have high fructose corn syrup, that are higher in fiber, and we want to provide those choices for them and we want to have lots of healthy options.”

Utley is starting an education initiative through the pantry’s block captain program — the volunteers in the neighborhood around the Goodman Center who procure food from their neighbors on a regular basis. They will specifically request items like cereals, for example, that are higher in fiber and lower in sugar.

“We can ask for brown rice versus white rice, we can request whole wheat pastas, we can ask people to donate natural peanut butters rather than peanut butters that have hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup added to them,” Utley said.

The pantry will still take all donations, and cookies and potato chips will still be available in the snack area, Utley added. They are just making a push for healthier choices.

Life beyond fresh produce

Middleton Outreach Ministry’s food pantry doesn’t have an organized, concerted effort like the Goodman Center, but it is constantly trying to recruit healthy food for food drives and acquire healthy food through Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, said Jackson Fonder, MOM’s executive director.

This past summer, for the first time, MOM was able to harvest more than 2,000 pounds of produce from its new community garden next to the pantry.

“The enormity of that for our clients was just incredible,” Fonder said. “It’s just a great opportunity to be a little healthier than some typical food pantry items.”

But now, entering the winter months, the produce supply is drying up.

“That means all we have left is to make sure that whatever we buy, or whatever other people buy, we ask for healthier items,” Fonder said.

Cheri Farha, manager of the MOM’s distribution center, said the food pantry garden was born out of a philosophy of providing nutritious food to its clients, not just whatever comes its way. “And also a belief — and the truth — that fresh food can often cost more than processed food, and so we wanted to be able to give our guests the same access that people of means are afforded.”

Gardeners gave time, donated results

Chris Brockel, food and gardens division manager for the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, is responsible for coordinating the 51 member organizations in the Dane County Food Pantry Network.

Through a multi-year grant from the Madison Community Foundation, CAC got 23 organizations to garden on behalf of a food pantry and donate the resulting produce.

That project included the East High Youth Farm, a collaboration between Madison East High School and Troy Gardens, with the produce going to the Goodman Community Center. The MOM food pantry garden was also funded by the grant.

Overall, the CAC spent $22,000, and the 23 organizations grew and donated 127,000 pounds of produce, Brockel said.

“It’s pretty cheap when you consider what we got for it,” he said.

CAC provided startup money for equipment, tools, soil tests, mulch and plowing. But then the rest of the work was done by the volunteers — as many as 300. Churches, schools and community gardens banded together, he said.

For the last few years, volunteers through CAC have been going to the Dane County Farmers Market and other farmers’ markets and picking up donations from vendors. That yields about 25,000 pounds a year.

Brockel said there’s a demand for fresh produce at food pantries, but just like with the general public, people sometimes have trouble identifying vegetables or always knowing what to do with them.

“What is this big, round, whitish-type thing?” Brockel said. “A rutabaga? What is that? Why is it good for me? How do I cook it?”

Madison has a strong local food movement, and CAC’s interest is in how it could connect people in poverty to that same movement and give them access to fresh, healthy vegetables, Brockel said.

“Because they are probably overly impacted by obesity, diabetes, poor nutritional choices — not necessarily because of who they are or because they just don’t know better,” he said, “but also because of what resources are available to them, including time, location, and are they are close to a grocery store? Do they have the money to shop for those items?”