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Healthy foods: The real luxury is being able to choose

Nutritious, fresh foods are not only hard to afford for many of us, they are also shockingly hard to come by for our neighbors experiencing food insecurity.

As I waited in line for coffee this morning, I talked with a woman struggling to choose between the rich sugary doughnut she craved and the healthy oatmeal she said she “wanted to want.” As we commiserated, something important occurred to me: It’s not a doughnut or any sweet treat that’s the luxury. The real luxury is having a choice in what we eat.

Food shelf clients tell us that putting healthy and nutritious, fresh food on the table — lean meats, milk and cheese, fresh fruits, vegetables and spices — involves planning and budgeting. These foods are not only hard to afford for many of us, they are also shockingly hard to come by for our neighbors experiencing food insecurity.

‘Empty’ calories are cheap and abundant

Candy and soda, on the other hand, are cheap and easy to find, even in communities without grocery stores for miles around. This means only the cheap, so-called “empty” calories are abundant, making a tough situation worse for the health of many of our neighbors.

I’ve always worked in food. Back in college, I was proud to help found the first large-scale food bank in France. Now, after a few decades in the private sector, it’s my job to make sure Second Harvest Heartland distributes more healthy meals to food shelves and meal programs across the region. This is an achievable goal. After all, Minnesota’s business is food. Our annual growing season is getting underway soon, and most of us are already looking forward to the first taste of summer sweet corn.

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Yet despite our status as a global agricultural powerhouse, one in 11 Minnesotans struggles to put food on the table. Some people suggest that anyone struggling should be happy with whatever food is made available to them. But any of us could find ourselves in need of a Minnesota food shelf — they served more people than ever last year — and, if the situation arose, we’d all want the dignity of choosing our own meals. We certainly wouldn’t want such limited choices that we were left hungry and sick.

The health outlook

People who use food shelves live with six times the diet-related diseases as those who are food secure. The Harvard School of Public Health just announced that the long-term health outlook for those reliant on cheap calories is grim. Specifically, consumption of sugar-added beverages increases weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and risk of premature death.

Thierry Ibri
Thierry Ibri
This week Second Harvest Heartland kicked off an ambitious plan to respond to this reality. By 2023, we’ll deliver more hard-to-come-by foods on a large scale. With the help of food shelf and meal program partners, we will double the amount of lean protein we distribute, ensure year-round access to milk, and increase the volume of fruits and vegetables in our mix. And we will make way for 830,000 more healthy meals next year by removing candy and soda from our inventory today. We are not only responding to the science. Following the example of smart leaders in the hunger-relief community, these changes allow us to give clients what they are asking for.

We hear hundreds of stories that make the choices clear, from our clients and stakeholders in the community. I think of a single mother named Jessica, who relies on her local food shelf for eggs so she can make sure her kids eat some protein before school. There’s Rosey, who has lost weight and turned her health and life around by visiting her neighborhood produce distribution weekly.

Volunteers and clients: sometimes the same

Rosey volunteers with Second Harvest Heartland to help inspire others trying to get to improve their health. Many one-time clients become donors and passionate volunteers when their situations change, and many longtime donors and volunteers — surprised by a layoff or illness — visit their local food shelves as clients for the first time.

With Rosey and Jessica and half a million stories in mind, it’s clear we have a responsibility to make every meal we deliver count. Our neighbors living with food insecurity are students and seniors, parents and children. Better food means better lives, and better communities. It’s the right thing to do. I’ll keep talking about the luxury of food choice until it’s no longer viewed as a luxury at all.

Thierry Ibri is chief operations and programs officer at Second Harvest Heartland.

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