Special Blog Post By: Alisa Tantraphol, Second Harvest Food Bank Associate Director of Strategic Partnerships

The “hunger-obesity paradox” is a well-documented phenomenon: many Americans who are undernourished and food insecure are also overweight. This paradox makes sense when you ask yourself what you would do if you didn’t have enough money to meet your family’s food needs: you would seek out the cheapest sources of calories available to satisfy their hunger. Unfortunately, the cheapest calories tend to be the least healthy (think: fast food and soda). These energy-rich, nutrient-poor diets lead to higher risks of obesity and disease. Studies have found that nearly 21 percent of medical costs in the U.S. can be attributed to obesity.

The average Second Harvest client relies on food from us 13 times a year. Our clients are no longer people in short-term crisis – they are chronically food insecure, many of them living in households with family members working in low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough for them to make ends meet…often attributable to the skyrocketing cost of rent in Silicon Valley. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Clara is now $2,411, which is almost 40% more than what you gross working full-time at minimum wage.

As clients rely on Second Harvest to meet more of their ongoing food needs, the nutritional quality of the food we provide and the nutrition education we offer them can make a significant impact on their overall health – as well as the rates of obesity (and related diseases like diabetes) in our community and the health care costs borne by employers and society.

Our latest Hunger Study found that:

  • 63% of client households report a family member with high blood pressure – twice the national average
  • 33% of client households report someone in the household with diabetes – three times the national average
  • Simply put, our clients are at greater risk for poor health yet have fewer resources to manage illness and access healthcare.

    We surveyed our clients to find out what foods they most desired, and they responded with healthy foods that comprise a balanced diet: fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and grains. Our clients don’t want junk food and soda – they want the healthy food their kids need to grow and thrive, but that’s out of reach for them.

    Recognizing that client health and preferences are better served by a strong nutrition policy, our Board of Directors formally approved a written Healthy Food and Beverage Policy this month with the following guiding principle: “Second Harvest believes food is medicine and therefore will distribute the nutritious food that clients want and deserve to live healthy, active lives free from hunger.” Studies have shown that a written policy can change a food bank’s organizational culture and practices. Our three-year goals to support this guiding policy include:

  • Maintain a 50+% distribution of fresh produce
  • Encourage and facilitate produce consumption through education, food sampling, and distributing essential cooking ingredients like oil and spices
  • Increase protein (including dairy) distribution to 24% of all pounds distributed
  • Focus grain purchases on low-sugar whole grains
  • Discontinue distribution of candy (which has never been purchased by the food bank, only donated)
  • Distribute only healthy beverages

    This policy has been recognized by key stakeholders, such as the California Association of Food Banks and MAZON, as one of the strongest food bank nutrition policies in the country.

    Second Harvest has always been in the vanguard of food banking nationwide. We were the first food bank in the country to hire a full-time nutritionist. Over half of the food we provide to clients is fresh fruits and vegetables, distributing over 35 million pounds of fresh produce every year—more than any other food bank in the country. Our Nutrition Education team and Health Ambassadors provide tastings at food distributions and send our clients home with recipe tip cards (in multiple languages). A Second Harvest study conducted with the help of Stanford and funded through the Get Fresh Project confirmed that the recipe tip cards are effective in increasing preference, willingness to try new recipes, and consumption; in other words, they help our clients make the best use of the produce they receive from us.

    We are grateful for the community-wide support that makes this incredible nutritional gift to the community possible—from volunteers who help us sort through and distribute half a million pounds of produce a week, to individual volunteers who provide Nutrition Education to our clients, to donors who make it possible for us to have a Nutrition Education team on staff. Together, we’re working to ensure that everyone has access to the nutritious foods they need to thrive.