Alfonso Paredes of God Provisions in Central Islip helps volunteer...

Alfonso Paredes of God Provisions in Central Islip helps volunteer Lauren Allen, right, load corn into their cart from Island Harvest Food Distribution, while Sonia Paredes, background, left, and Caitlyn Wozniak, a volunteer, watch during a food drive in Hauppauge on Aug. 10, 2011. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Think before you donate.

Let us explain. Food insecurity is rampant in this country, with one in seven Americans having to rely on food pantries and soup kitchens to survive. To feed this massive population, nearly 46 million people, these organizations rely almost entirely on donations.

That’s where you and I come into the picture. Typically, we offload into food drives the dusty cans from the back of our kitchen cabinets. We use food drives as a kind of dumping ground for the items we won’t eat, rather than truly considering how to nourish our fellow citizens.

Too often, the food we donate is full of fat, salt, and sugar. Of course, people in need will take what they can get from the agencies that receive and distribute food drive donations. But people who are food insecure are already prone to having poor diets, since grocery stores are not readily accessible in many low-income communities and even when they are, fresh produce is beyond their means.

For this reason, our nation’s poor tend to consume readily available convenience store and fast food fare, placing them at risk for obesity, weakened brain function, as well as debilitating and costly diseases.

A recent study from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy found that half of U.S. deaths from heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes could be eliminated by meeting healthier nutritional guidelines. It’s increasingly clear that food is a kind of medicine, which we can help extend to those in need with a bit more thoughtfulness.

As the holiday season nears, schools, community organizations and faith groups begin their plans for annual food drives. In our experience, serving as directors on the board of Heaven on Earth NOW, a national nonprofit based in Colorado, we have found it is easy to transform these collections into healthy food drives.

Education is the key. We start by giving donors lists of healthy non-perishables. We encourage them to give the foods they feed their families. The food they donate doesn’t have to be more expensive since in most cases, the healthy versions of non-perishables are the same price as the less healthy ones.

For example, a can of tuna in water is the same price and far healthier than a can of tuna in oil. The same is true when you swap out sugary cereals for whole grains, white rice for brown and granola bars for cookies.

When we converted our food collection to a healthy food drive nearly a decade ago, our local food bank resisted the idea, fearing donations would decrease. But the opposite occurred, and donations increased substantially. Clearly, we proved it’s possible to have both quality and quantity.

With some simple adjustments to the way we give, we can turn food drives into true acts of generosity, ones that provide real benefits to their recipients - and to society at large. Next time you’re asked to contribute to a food drive, think before you donate. Every person deserves healthy food.

Dean Cottrill and Patty Kallmyer of Baltimore, Maryland, are directors on the board of the nonprofit Heaven on Earth NOW, which works to feed and house people in need. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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