Written by Maria Gaura
SANTA CRUZ, CA (Sept. 2011) – When California’s first food bank opened in this Central Coast city in 1972, its mission was simple and practical: eliminate hunger by collecting society’s surplus food and giving it to people in need.
Families with a referral from a social service agency could come to the Emergency Food Bank in the city’s Harvey West Business Park and take home a bag of groceries containing three days worth of food.
“Our emergency food bags held dented canned goods that we collected from grocery stores, bags of rice and dried beans, and whatever fresh vegetables the stores would give us,” said Michael Alexander, who began working at the food bank as a VISTA volunteer and eventually transformed the little pantry into the Second Harvest Food Bank, a regional powerhouse that now feeds more than 54,000 people every month. “We gave away one bag per person in the family, and people survived on that.”
But over the years, the mix of donated foods flowing into Second Harvest’s Watsonville warehouse changed dramatically, reflecting wider changes in the American diet and food supply. Agricultural commodities such as apples, rice, and beans were overwhelmed by a flood of processed foods, including tons of sugary soda and energy drinks.
“When I became Director of Second Harvest in 1988, snacks and candies and soda were a strong part of our inventory,” said Willy Elliott-McCrea, the current CEO and Executive Director of the organization, who started working alongside Alexander in 1978. “I didn’t question it. I was an old-fashioned food banker who takes anything he’s given and hands it away.”
Sure, sodas and junk food weren’t ideal, he reasoned, but calories were calories, and it seemed unwise to question charity, especially when the same donors had been sending free food to Second Harvest for years.
But that outlook changed in 2005, when Elliott-McCrea was diagnosed with colon cancer. When he returned from medical leave, Elliott-McCrea had been transformed from an “old school food banker” to a nutrition evangelist, dedicated to setting Second Harvest - and the food banking movement - on a new course.
“That (cancer) was my wakeup call,” Elliott-McCrea said. “Those six weeks at home, in recovery from the surgery, really got me thinking about how devastating these chronic diseases are to people, and families,” he said. “Diabetes is huge in Watsonville, as is obesity and heart disease and cancer.
“Health problems and medical costs are major causes of foreclosures and personal bankruptcy in this town,” he said. “I had to think about the harm we were possibly inflicting on people we were trying to help.”
BANKING ON NUTRITION
Second Harvest has since transformed itself from an “old-school food bank” into a cutting edge “nutrition bank” – attacking the new malnutrition with the same energy and practicality it used to establish the concept of food banking some forty years ago.
In 2008, Second Harvest installed an enormous new cooler and freezer that allow it to greatly increase the amount of produce collected from area farmers. Last year, Second Harvest distributed more than 7,278,000 pounds of food, 53 percent of it fresh produce, much of it locally grown.
The agency has banned sodas and energy drinks, and invested heavily in nutrition education, cooking classes and community outreach. In addition to forming partnerships with more than 200 local health and service agencies, Second Harvest hopes to spark a change of direction for food agencies across America.
"Santa Cruz has been a leader in this nutrition movement," said Eric Manke, Policy and Communications Manager for the California Association of Food Banks. "We have 42 members, and food banks in different places have (different policies on junk food) for a whole host of reasons. But a lot of banks have decided to start moving away from soda, and are trying to replace those lost calories by bringing in fresh produce."
Elliott-McCrea sees the move to “nutrition banking” as a necessary step in the evolution of food aid to the poor, since low-income Americans are far more likely to suffer from obesity and nutrition-based illness than are wealthier individuals, according to national statistics. The health disparity is particularly glaring in Watsonville, where the agency is now headquartered and where one-third of children are at an unhealthy weight, according to data collected by local schools.
TERRORISM OF TOO MANY CALORIES
In his frequent speeches at food banking conferences, Elliott-McCrea compares the new era of nutrition to the new realities of national defense.
“In the 70s and 80s we were fighting the ‘Cold War’ to make sure that seniors, kids and the working poor had enough calories to stay warm, get through the day and keep their engines going,” Elliott-McCrea said.
But thanks to food technology, he says, the shortage of calories has been replaced by an abundance of cheap, high-calorie, low-nutrition food. Malnutrition looks different today, with symptoms such as obesity and diabetes instead of the stick-thin limbs and swollen bellies that historically accompanied famine.
“The ‘Cold War’ of too few calories has been replaced by the ‘Terrorism’ of too many calories,” Elliott-McCrea said. “Distributing high-calorie/low nutrient food to low income families can no longer be viewed as neutral. It has long-term, severe negative impacts on the people we exist to serve. It brings devastating diseases, makes it harder to find work, and results in household budgets consumed by health costs.”
While Second Harvest’s transformation has been enthusiastically received in Santa Cruz County, other food banks have been criticized for banning sweets and sodas. Critics inside and outside the food banking system argue that food banks risk being viewed as elitist, dictatorial and disrespectful of their clients.
"I was invited to speak at at national food banking conference, and I debated a food banker from Las Vegas about our decision not to take sodas anymore," Elliott-McCrea said. "Half the room thought it made a lot of sense, and the other half were horrified at the thought that some people were so elitist that they would turn away food. The room was very divided."
Banning soda has been a particular hurdle for many banks, not only due to fear of criticism, but because soda weighs a lot, and food banks have traditionally measured their success by increasing the tonnage of food distributed each year.
In addition, distributing produce requires an upfront investment in refrigerated storage that can also be costly to operate.
“We were first in the country to ban carbonated beverages, back in 2005,” said Suzan Bateson, executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank. “At the time we were distributing maybe a million pounds of produce and about 800,000 pounds of carbonated beverages. But we have really upped our commitment to produce, and … last year we distributed more than 11 million pounds of fresh produce.
“It can be hard to make these choices, because food banks have fewer shelf-stable foods offered to them these days, and we’re all struggling to make ends meet,” she said. “There was some grumbling. But I know we did the right thing for our community and our staff.”
ALLIES FOR HEALTH
Because food banks rely on community donations, there is concern that refusing products may offend donors, who might then withdraw support from the food bank altogether. But both Bateson and Elliott-McCrea say that donors have not retaliated, and that the new focus on nutrition has brought enthusiastic new partners.
“On the upside, (banning junk food) has attracted contributors such as medical groups and foundations, and donors who really feel that you’re on the right path,” Bateson said. “It really helped us in some areas.”
Alec Webster, secretary and board member of the Helen and Will Webster Foundation, is one of the donors who wholeheartedly supports Second Harvest's new focus on nutrition.
“When (my wife) Claudia and I first toured the food bank years ago, we were pretty appalled at some of the products,” Alec Webster said. “It was bottles of low-calorie salad dressing and cans of soda and lots of over-processed junk – things that I wouldn’t eat and that just didn’t add up to a decent meal.”
That’s when Elliott-McCrea told them about a fledgling program to increase produce and whole grain products, “and I said, we should expand this,” Webster said. “Willy wanted to start calling it a ‘nutrition bank,’ and we thought that is a fantastic idea, that is what it should be.
“So anyway, now you go into the Second Harvest warehouse and it’s quite impressive,” Webster said. “They’ve got literally tons of dried pinto beans and brown rice, cans of tomato sauce and 20 pound bags of beautiful fresh apples and carrots, and potatoes and celery and turnips. It’s real food, it’s very high quality, it’s food I would totally eat.
“Willy is trying to tackle the health crisis where it begins, by making sure people, and especially children, have good food to eat,” Webster said.
Maria Gaura's reporting on food and nutrition banking was undertaken as part of a health journalism program offered through The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, administered by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.