Food banks have long been known for collecting boxes of pasta and canned vegetables and distributing them to families in need.
Now more than ever, the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina is focusing on fresh products, including fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy.
“Food banks are trying to get healthier food,” said Carter Crain, food resources manager for the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, which serves 34 counties.
Twenty years ago, Crain said, about 5 percent of the goods distributed by the food bank were perishable. Now, more than half of the products given to families and hundreds of partner organizations are fresh produce, meat or dairy.
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Crain said food banks across the United States are moving more toward perishable items. Unhealthy food tends to be cheaper, so it’s crucial to get fruits and veggies into people’s homes.
In the communities served by the food bank, more than 651,000 people struggle to access enough food. One-third of these are children.
“I would think the value is healthier food, and more of it,” Crain said.
The logistics of storing and shipping fresh products before they go bad can be tough for food banks and the organizations they serve.
About half of the perishable goods obtained by the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina comes from retail stores such as Harris Teeter, Kroger, Food Lion, Walmart, Carlie C’s and more, Crain said.
Years ago, he said, stores used to throw away produce that was bruised or nearing the end of its shelf life. Now, stores give away a lot of those products.
The food bank has refrigerated trucks to pick up the goods and ship them to partner groups. It delivers about 60 percent of the goods, and partners also “shop” for products at the food bank’s warehouses.
A corps of volunteers sorts and repackages the fresh goods and handles products that need refrigerated, said Jennifer Caslin, coordinator of marketing for the food bank. The Raleigh warehouse has a 10,000-square-foot walk-in freezer.
Volunteers sort sweet potatoes – one of the most common items at the food bank – into 10-pound bags, Caslin said.
The Raleigh Rescue Mission regularly gets fresh produce and meat products from the food bank, said Kirby Smith, food service coordinator for the group.
He said the Raleigh Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter that accommodates about 100 men, women and children, has put a focus on serving healthier meals.
“Everyone’s trying to go with a more fresh approach and healthier approach,” Smith said.
The group also gets nonperishable goods from the food bank, including crackers, cereal and bottled water. But workers grab fresh items whenever they’re available, Smith said.
Lately, he said, the food bank has had grapes and strawberries.
It’s always preferable to serve fresh fruit instead of fruit from a can, Smith said.
“Plus, it tastes better,” he said.
While retail stores play a big role in getting fresh produce to the food bank, about half of the fresh products come from local farmers, Crain said.
The food bank is trying to partner with more farmers who are willing to donate, he said.
In central and eastern North Carolina, Crain said, many families grew up near farms, so they know how to cook things like sweet potatoes and cabbage. It’s just a matter of getting those products to families who need them.
It’s especially tough for families who live in “food deserts,” without easy access to grocery stores, Caslin said.
The food bank still relies on food drives, in which people donate nonperishable goods. But Crain said he thinks the organization will continue to focus more and more on fresh products.
“We want to encourage people to live the healthiest life that they can,” Caslin said.
How to help
One child in four in our community will go hungry tonight.
Feed the Need supports the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, which serves 34 counties. The News & Observer sponsors the event, along with Syngenta, Biogen, Harris Teeter and ABC11.
In eight years, Feed the Need has been responsible for providing more than 2 million meals to hungry people in our community. In 2014, Feed the Need raised $48,700 in cash and more than 10,500 pounds of food.
Here’s how you can help:
Donate food: Through April 25, donate nutritious, nonperishable foods in plastic or metal containers at your neighborhood Harris Teeter.
Give on Feed the Need Day: On Saturday morning, April 25, look for volunteers at select Harris Teeter stores who will accept donations of food and cash.