By Michael Gold
Do our local food donation programs worsen the health of their intended recipients?
Yes, of course, people need to eat, but we should also question the nutritional quality of the food we’re donating to the hungry folks who need it.
An area supermarket is performing a laudable service by providing donation bags of food for the hungry, many of whom are currently suffering from the twin ravages of COVID-19 and sudden unemployment.
My heart goes out to anyone who is hungry. I have purchased donation bags at a local supermarket four times in recent weeks. But every time I opened the bags to see what I’m buying for the local food bank, I have been dismayed about what I’ve seen.
In mid-June, I found a package of Chips Ahoy Rainbow Chip Cookies. A serving size – two cookies – contains 10 grams of sugar. The cookies also have palm kernel oil, which is bad for your heart. This product has seven grams of fat, three grams of which are saturated. Saturated fat can increase cholesterol, also bad for your heart.
Other donation bags I have bought over these past few weeks have included a box of cake mix (26 grams of sugar in one-third of a cup); frosting (21 grams of sugar in two tablespoons); a bottle of cranberry juice (31 grams of sugar in a 10-ounce glass); a six-pack of Hi-C juice boxes (25 grams of sugar in one box); Mrs. Butterworth’s Maple Syrup (37 grams of sugar in a quarter of a cup); and Goya Cookies (six grams of sugar and three grams of fat, half of which is saturated).
For comparison, children should have at most 25 grams of sugar and 23 to 27 grams of saturated fat every day, according to the American Heart Association.
In fairness, there were some healthy foods included in the bags, including peanut butter, a can of black beans, anchovies and a can of tomatoes. One bag had pasta, but it was made with white flour, which is not as healthy as wheat pasta, which is higher in fiber and other nutrients and lower in calories.
I was exasperated by the inclusion of high-sugar and high-fat foods, but I didn’t want to make a fuss about it in the supermarket. The bags were already packed and stapled, and I had been opening them up to see what was inside.
But the donation that really sent me into open rebellion was Pillsbury Funfetti Buttermilk Pancake and Waffle Mix with candy bits. A serving has 12 grams of sugar and one gram of fiber. I started opening the other bags in the charity food bag cart and found more of the same Funfetti Mix product.
After discussing this dietary travesty with my wife for a few minutes in front of a supermarket employee, who was none too happy about seeing me touch the bags, we took the bag with the Funfetti Mix and walked to an aisle with pancake mix products. There, we found a healthier substitute product – Krusteaz Buttermilk Mix, which has seven grams of sugar and three grams of fiber.
My mom, who was a registered dietitian for 40 years, said she would choose the Krusteaz product because of its lower sugar and higher fiber content. Fiber helps your heart, blood sugar and digestion.
My daughter compiled a list of several healthy foods which can go in a food donation bag. These include Pepperidge Farm 100 percent whole wheat bread, unsweetened soy milk (shelf life of three to four weeks if unopened), unsalted cashews and even apples. Apples have a shelf life of four to six weeks when stored in a refrigerator.
My wife said it best: would you buy this product for your child? If not, why buy it for a donation bag? If you care enough to buy food for an anonymous someone who needs it, why not make sure it’s healthy, especially when you may be purchasing it for a child?
So, local supermarket, I don’t want to publicly shame your store by identifying you. But I want you to consider two ideas. Either place empty food donation bags at the front of the store, with a list of prominently posted rules for what shoppers can’t select, such as perishable items like bananas, lettuce, grapes and other produce and let your shoppers fill them with healthy products as they walk the aisles. Or, put healthier products in the donation bags.
Pleasantville resident Michael Gold has published articles in The Washington Post, The New York Daily News and The Albany Times-Union, among other newspapers. Miriam Gold provided research assistance for this article.