- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006

Local food banks and soup kitchens say donations of candy bars, cookies and other junk foods are becoming more commonplace — a trend they think reflects the country’s poor eating habits.

Despite an increase of donated nutritious foods on a national scale in recent years, more than 630,000 people at risk of hunger in the region are facing dwindling options, as food banks field more sugary contributions and less canned goods and produce.

“It’s not as simple or clear-cut as healthy versus unhealthy,” said Bill Ewing, the executive director for the Maryland Food Bank. “However, [donated food] reflects what one finds in a grocery store … attempting to change people’s nutrition and eating habits is like pushing water uphill.”

Brian Smith, the chief operating officer of the Capital Area Food Bank, said the quality of the food is “often at the whim of the donor community.”

“Maybe half of our donations are snacks or less-nutritional foods — cookies, crackers, pudding,” he said.

Both food banks are affiliates of America’s Second Harvest, the largest food-bank network in the country. The network distributes almost 2 billion pounds of donated food and grocery items every year for more than 25 million people.

Ross Fraser, a spokesman for the network, said the amount of healthy food donated to local food banks varies, but conscious efforts have increased the nutritional value of items donated at the national level.

The Maryland Food Bank provides nearly 12 million pounds of food annually to 1,000 community food providers — including food pantries, emergency shelters, after-school programs and senior-citizen centers.

The bank serves every county in the state except Montgomery and Prince George’s, providing food for more than 235,000 persons every year.

“I would sell my soul to bring in a [donated] truckload of tuna fish or peanut butter, but it’s not [realistic],” Mr. Ewing said. “Our mission is to provide enough food for every hungry Marylander, and we are so far away from that. … The question isn’t if the bank receives enough healthy food, it’s if the bank receives enough food donations of any kind.”

The Capital Area Food Bank, which serves the District, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Northern Virginia, distributes about 20 million pounds of food each year, including 6 million pounds of fresh produce through more than 700 member agencies.

Mr. Smith said the bank would like to stock up on nutritional and nonperishable foods, but it has outgrown its headquarters in Northeast and receives more food than it can accommodate, forcing him to turn away good produce.

“For the last few years, we’ve hit a plateau, and the reason is because we don’t have the storage or handling capacity for more,” he said. Funding for a larger warehouse facility, projected to open in 2007, is just past the halfway mark.

Some missions and kitchens need to be selective for the sake of their clientele’s health.

“Our clients are not just hungry, they’re sick also,” said Craig M. Shniderman, the executive director for Food and Friends, a District-based organization that prepares meals for people with AIDS, cancer and other disabling illnesses.

“Everybody likes a treat,” he said. “But this is clinical nutrition, so we have to be particularly careful.”

Since the organization was founded in 1988, volunteers have prepared and delivered more than 9 million meals, serving more than 1,000 clients in the metropolitan area every month.

The increase in junk-food donations isn’t as problematic for the organization as it is for other shelters or soup kitchens, since Food and Friends buys about 75 percent of its food, Mr. Shniderman said.

Nevertheless, he said the agency often receives donations — including a “massive” amount of Girl Scouts cookies last year — which are of little value to them.

“We don’t send out empty calories,” he said. “It’s detrimental to the appetite, and we want our clients to eat a lot.”

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