Part 2 of 4 in Hunger in the Valley of Plenty a series by KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
By Sasha Khokha and Natasha Del Toro
Pediatrician Dr. Razia Sheikh is no-nonsense when it comes to obesity in kids. In the exam room of her Fresno clinic, she has some harsh words for patient Veronica Regalado and her mother.
“She’s got all these stretch marks. Do you see that?” she asked. “She’s only 12. So we have to fix this, OK? No sodas, OK?”
Sheikh works with low-income families in Fresno, where more than 42 percent of kids are overweight or obese. She sweeps up Regalado’s long hair to examine a dark patch on the back of her neck.
“You see, this is called Acanthosis nigricans,” she explained. “It is like a black, dark velvet kind of thing, and this is also because of the weight. This is pre-diabetes.”
Changing kids’ diets can be a challenge for families struggling to make ends meet. Like many working families in the Central Valley, the Regalados get help from a food bank.
And many California food banks still distribute mostly packaged food — cereals, canned goods, bread and even sugary drinks. That may be making health problems worse, says Sandy Beals. She directs FoodLink for Tulare County, a food bank in Visalia, just south of Fresno.
Hunger and Dietary Choices
“People who don’t know if they’re going to eat tomorrow tend to overeat today,” Beals said. “And the foods that they eat tend to be high-calorie dense, but poor-nutrient dense. So they’re not getting what they need. But the calories are making them obese.”
FoodLink serves one out of four families in impoverished Tulare County. According to 2010 data from the California Health Interview Survey, more than 68 percent of adults here are obese or overweight.
So for the last decade, Beals has taken a hard-line stance against donations of sugary snacks and drinks to her food bank.
“Is sugary sweetened soda pop of equal value to an orange?” Beals asked. “No, night and day.”
Food banks were designed to help families with short-term, emergency food assistance. They were never intended to feed people over the long term. But now they’ve become a primary source of nutrition for many families facing chronic poverty and unemployment in the Central Valley.
That means food banks have to grapple with some hard choices.
They usually measure their success by adding up the literal weight of the food they give out. How many thousands of pounds per year are they giving away?
“Nutrition isn’t a big part of the measurement of success,” Beals said. “And that surprised me.”
Saying No to Sugary Donations
FoodLink is only one of a tiny number of California food banks that says no to donations of sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks.
“Believe it or not, it actually turned out to be kind of a bold move,” Beals said.
Some donors who liked the tax write-off and the good PR associated with donating to a food bank were upset, and withdrew financial support. That’s hard for a food bank that’s had to lay off staff and can often barely afford to pay its electric bill.
“But I’ve never had one instance of regret,” Beals said. “I can see the difference in people’s health by eating healthy food rather than junk. We don’t serve corporations, we don’t serve food manufacturers. We serve people who are hungry and need healthy food.”
The vast majority of California food banks still don’t turn down donations of sugary snacks or sodas.
“We never say no to a donation. We just don’t have the luxury of saying no,” said Andy Souza, who directs Community Food Bank in Fresno.
He walks through the busy warehouse where forklifts move pallets of cereal, oatmeal and plums. They’ll be loaded onto trucks and distributed to churches, food pantries and community centers.
Community Food Bank is a much larger operation than FoodLink, feeding six times as many people each month. Souza says they aim to serve the healthiest food they can, but “we’ve taken the position that we’ll take that truckload of candy.”
A Complex Choice
Food bank advocates say it’s a complex choice. They all want to focus on distributing healthy food. But if a grocery store donates some sheet cakes it can’t sell, is it better to give them out to families, or see them thrown in the landfill or donated to a pig farm?
“If we can use it in small amounts to supplement what we provide, it’s just part of getting calories into kids,” Souza said. “But more importantly, it’s just what it means to a lot of those families. There are some times that it can help provide a little bit of hope, especially around maybe Halloween.”
Community Food Bank, like many others, receives donations through a national hunger charity called Feeding America, whose corporate donors include Pepsico, Kellogg’s and Mars. Food banks essentially get points for accepting items like sugary snacks. Those points can be used to order healthier food later.
“If that pound of candy helps us get more rice and beans into the pantries of the people we serve, we just think that’s a good trade-off,” Souza said.
Two years ago, Nestlé donated Nesquik chocolate milk and other products to the food bank.
It was part of what Nestlé dubbed “National Chocolate-Covered Raisins Day,” and involved a celebration in the Fresno County town of Raisin City, complete with parade and the renaming of the town to Raisinets City for a day. Dancing raisins passed out cases of Nestlé’s Raisinets to farmworkers and other residents of the town, where Community Food Bank distributes food each month.
Below: a Promotional video from the event.