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Good Nutrition vs. Need: A Closer Look

Following dietary guidelines often isn't an option for those who use food pantries

MONDAY, Jan. 31, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Few people picking up groceries at a New Mexico food pantry recently were focusing on the right amount of vegetables and whole-grain products that are now recommended for the daily American diet.

Instead, the people arriving at the Jewish Community Food Pantry in Albuquerque were hoping to get by with whatever they could, mostly from the kindness of strangers.

Getting healthy food is hard, said one client, Audrey, "because most of the things you're supposed to eat don't come in cans."

"Even when I have extra money," she added, "I can't get the good stuff because it won't last. It's medicine versus food. Once in a while, the medicine has to win out."

The choices most people should make when it comes to a healthy diet were delineated in the new U.S. dietary guidelines announced three weeks ago. At the time, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told a news conference that all Americans should be able to follow them.

"Cost is not a determinant of whether or not you eat properly. A lot of inexpensive foods can be extremely healthy," he said. "You're going to spend a lot more money if you don't eat healthy in medical costs."

But healthy eating, health experts say, isn't attainable by everyone.

For those with limited funds, cost plays a role in purchasing decisions.

A pilot study in Roxbury, a low-income Boston neighborhood, found that a family of four receiving food stamps came up $227 short every month, while seniors living alone came up $103 short. The study was presented at an American Heart Association meeting last year and co-authored by Dr. Paula Johnson, chief of the division of women's health at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

In addition to cost, access, including transportation, can also be a significant barrier.

In another study published last fall, Dr. Carol Horowitz, an assistant professor of health policy at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, found that only one in five stores in East Harlem carried low-fat milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, diet soda and whole-grain bread while three in five stores in the adjacent but wealthier Upper East Side carried these items. Only one in 10 East Harlem bodegas, the corner stores that many residents rely on, carried the items. And while prices were roughly the same in both regions, the median income on the Upper East Side is four times what it is in Harlem, Horowitz pointed out.

Then there's the issue of perishability.

"Fresh produce is one of the first things that low-income people eliminate," said Melody Wattenbarger, executive director of the Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque. "They don't want to pay a big price for something that they might not be able to eat at all."

Wattenbarger said one senior citizen told her she hadn't had a salad in nine years.

And Audrey also pointed out, "If a salad bag is on special, I can't stock up on three."

Roadrunner, which last year distributed 10 million pounds of food, has been changing its product mix to address this problem. Roadrunner gets the food from food industry donors and they also buy in bulk. They then distribute it statewide to more than 600 emergency food pantries, group homes, low-income day care centers, shelters, soup kitchens and six smaller, regional food banks. These organizations, in turn, provide food boxes and meals to almost 200,000 low-income people each year.

Even so, the food pantries themselves find that's not enough.

In addition to supplies from Roadrunner, the Jewish Community Food Pantry, for instance, has to rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodity program, on food donations, and on food it can buy with limited monetary donations for the 2.5 tons of food it gives out each month.

The pantry, a tiny adobe structure tucked behind an apartment complex, provides free food for 30 to 35 families every week. Each family gets food once a month, enough to fill one box. Most of the clients are working poor, disabled or elderly, said Erica Wyatt, outreach services coordinator for Jewish Family Service of New Mexico.

At the pantry, the USDA commodity foods, which line the shelves of the pantry, are attractive because they're free, but a quick glance at the labels reveals that they carry a different price tag.

One can of chunky beef stew provides 20 percent of a person's daily saturated fat allowance and 42 percent of the sodium allowance. A can of chili provides more than half the daily saturated fat allowance and 45 percent of the sodium allowance.

"It's a good thing to hand out because it's a meal, but it's not nutritious," Wyatt said.

Protein is particularly difficult to get," she added. "We try to buy peanut butter when it's available, but we went a couple of months without that being an option. We try to get Total cereal but we went through a period when Frankenberry's was the only thing available."

At the pantry, the clients are glad to get what's available.

Jodi DeJesus, 35, the mother of a 7-year-old and 9-year-old in Albuquerque, said she looked in her refrigerator recently and saw only milk and bananas. That's when she called the food pantry for the first time. She was leaving with crackers, goldfish (for the kids), a bag of pre-mixed salad, fruit, ramen noodles, and bread. This is the first time that DeJesus, who said she has a master's degree in counseling and is currently unemployed, has had to ask for help.

Maryann, 45, was also at the pantry for the first time. She had been laid off from her job in the public school system last June and was now collecting $263 a week in unemployment, which has to cover rent, car insurance, utilities and everything else.

"I've cut everything down," she said. And that includes food. Recently she bought three frozen pizzas at a local grocery store, for only $1.59 each.

And while they were cheap, she noted, "That's not good. That's not nutritious."

More information

America's Second Harvest has more on hunger in America.

SOURCES: Melody Wattenbarger, executive director, Roadrunner Food Bank, Albuquerque, N.M.; Carol Horowitz, M.D., MPH, assistant professor, health policy and medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; Paula Johnson, M.D., chief, division of women's health, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and associate professor, medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Erica Wyatt, outreach services coordinator, Jewish Family Service of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Jan. 12, 2005, news conference with Tommy Thompson, Health and Human Services Secretary; Audrey, Albuquerque, N.M.; Jodi DeJesus, Albuquerque, N.,M.; Maryann, Albuquerque, N.M.; September 2004 American Journal of Public Health; Photo of Jewish Community Food Pantry in Albuquerque, N.M., courtesy of Amanda Gardner
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