The Real Food Fight

Bringing Healthy Food to the Fight Against Hunger

Thea DeRosa realized there was a problem when no one would take her eggplants.

There they sat, 300 or more of them, unwanted and ignored, on a wooden pallet at a distribution center on Cleveland’s East Side.

DeRosa, who directs food programs for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, stationed herself next to the pallet and went into huckster mode. “I was trying to tell people to cut them down the middle, bread them, put sauce on them,” she remembers.

No takers. Instead, everyone made a beeline for the piles of white bread and canned vegetables.

“That’s when the light bulb went on,” she says. “It wasn’t enough just to offer nutritious food. We also had to teach people what to do with it.”

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That was in 2010. At the time, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank had already been shifting its focus toward fresh produce and whole grains, and away from refined pastas, breads, and canned goods. But many of its 700 member agencies—the food pantries, churches, homeless shelters, and other charities that distribute the Food Bank’s stocks—were seeing the same nonplussed response from constituents that DeRosa had seen standing by her pallet.

The reasons behind this were complicated. Partly, because people were accustomed to the canned and processed items the Food Bank had traditionally offered. Also, agencies were serving families at or below the poverty level who lived in food deserts—neighborhoods where residents had easier access to a fast-food hamburger than to fresh greens.

“Even when people did take the produce, a lot of them would get it home and not know what they were eating or how to prepare it,” DeRosa says.

Jan Ridgeway, volunteer director of the Garden Valley Neighborhood House in Cleveland’s Kinsman neighborhood, remembers the raised eyebrows she got when cabbage and brown rice started appearing in people’s share bags.

“They’d see it and say they didn’t want it,” Ridgeway says. “They’d actually take it out and leave it behind on the table.”

So, in 2011, the Food Bank hired a registered dietitian to educate member programs about good nutrition and healthy eating. One way to do this was to put together sample menus and recipes that could be handed out along with food. The recipes are based on fruits and vegetables available in a given week, and are simple by design. Many, such as one for canned beef stew augmented with fresh veggies, require only a microwave oven.

Food Bank staff also started doing cooking demonstrations, showing people how to sauté squash, make tasty salads, and cook whole-wheat pasta—not unlike what you’d see on a morning talk show. In addition to educating families about healthy cooking, the demonstrations had another, unforeseen benefit.

“A lot of the folks standing in line to receive food aren’t in the best situation,” DeRosa says. “The demonstrations make the experience a bit more of fun, a bit more positive.”

DeRosa remembers a time when she and other staff were doing a nutrition lesson at an after-school program. They brought out a couple cases of tomatoes and were greeted with gagging noises from the kids.

“It was, ‘ew, we don’t like tomatoes! They’re gross!’” DeRosa says.

But when staffers brought out other ingredients and showed the kids that tomatoes could be the basis for zesty salsas, the complaining faded.

“By the end, everyone was chowing down on salsa. It helped them make the connection between salsa—something they’re familiar with—and produce in its whole form.”

Today, resistance to nutritious foods hasn’t fully disappeared, but DeRosa and Ridgeway say people are more likely to accept or even seek out healthy options than they were four years ago.

“[I remember] families who, when they first came, said they didn’t want produce. Now they come every day we’re open and take fresh produce every time,” Ridgeway says.

That’s important, because Garden Valley’s service area has some of the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension, and respiratory disease in Northeast Ohio. Those illnesses can be caused or exacerbated by unhealthy diets. Ridgeway is working with pre-med students from Cleveland State University to track whether incidence of those illnesses decreases over time.

Meanwhile, the Food Bank’s internal reporting system shows that, of the 40 million pounds of food the organization distributed between October 2013 and September 2014, 75% was rated nutritious. DeRosa is happy with that number, especially considering that some of the supply comes from sources the organization can’t control, such as personal donations.

Still, she wants it to go even higher. And most important, she wants to keep showing people that healthy food can taste good.

Want to support the Greater Cleveland Food Bank? Visit GreaterClevelandFoodBank.org for details or check out Edible Cleveland’s Round Up campaign taking place at a few very special independent restaurants now through February 15, 2015.