This is the time of year when donations to food banks spike. But, some food banks are getting pickier about what they'll accept.
Earlier this year the Capital Area Food Bank announced it would "dramatically" cut back on junk food it receives and distributes. This means saying "no" to donations such as sheet cakes, holiday candy, sugary sodas and other processed, bakery items.
"Our core business — in helping those most in need — needs to be not only getting people food, but getting them the right food," says Nancy Roman, the CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank.
Roman says about half of the people that the CAFB serves have high blood pressure or other cardiovascular conditions, and about one in four clients have diabetes in their households. Given the epidemic of lifestyle and diet-related diseases, "we have a moral obligation to get our act together," Roman says.
Other food pantries are following a similar strategy. At the Share food pantry in McLean, Virginia, there's an effort to limit how many donations of sugary calories it accepts from donors such as supermarkets and restaurants.
"We've gotten calls from grocery stores saying, we have one-hundred cupcakes or sheet cakes, will you take them?" Therese Dyer-Caplan of Share told us. "The answer is no."
Share accepts pies during the holidays, since families enjoy a treat. Dyer-Caplan says she also accepts breads and a limited number of baked goods, but she tries to shift the overall balance towards healthier items.
So, where does Share find the kind of donations they're looking for? It turns out, the elementary school across the street has become a key partner, giving the food pantry about a hundred pounds of foods each week.
The donations are unopened leftovers from the cafeteria that would otherwise be tossed out. "Everything from cheese sticks, yogurts, and milks," gets donated says David Duggal, a 6th grader at Franklin Sherman Elementary. There's also hummus and fresh fruit, including apples and bananas. "It's a lot of food!"
"It's a win-win," says Josh DeSmyter, Assistant Principal at the school. He says the food no longer goes to waste, and the students learn the value of helping others.
Student Nicola Hopper says he thinks this is a big improvement. He says he felt guilty before they started donating their leftovers. "All of it just got wasted."
There are lots of reasons kids don't eat everything on their trays. They either pack too much, don't like what the cafeteria is serving, or they don't have time to eat everything.
The idea to recover unused food from elementary schools is the brainchild of a mom in this school district. When she visited her kids' own school several years ago, she was shocked by how much food was wasted.
"It was a mountain of food and it had to be tossed out. That was the regulation," says Kathleen Dietrich, founder of Food Bus. For food safety reasons, Dietrich explains, most school cafeterias don't allow food that's been purchased to be returned to the line. This means, in most cases, once a food is on a student's tray, it must be eaten or tossed.
At Franklin Sherman elementary alone, there's more than 3,000 pounds of food that is now salvaged during the school year. And when you consider that there's thousands of schools around the country, many of which are also tossing away food, "It's a lot of waste," Dietrich says.
Dietrich was determined to help solve the problem. She arranged to have the students start collecting their unopened leftovers instead of throwing them away. She also arranged to purchase extra refrigerators to store the perishable items. Once a week the students haul all the food they've collected over to the food pantry to be distributed.
At the Share food pantry, Therese Dyer-Caplan says the donations from the students are a godsend. "We're so grateful, and our clients are so grateful."
The model is spreading. Dietrich started the program in her own children's school. Now, it's up and running in more more than 40 schools across the country.
Dietrich has developed a toolkit to help schools get started. Each school must have refrigerators to store the food, and they need to find a local food pantry that can accept the donations.
Nancy Roman, at the CAFB, says she's thrilled to see more organizations popping up around the country that are focused on recovering nutritious food that would otherwise go to waste. Food Bus's mission fits nicely with the goal of the food pantry community - which is to provide healthier food. "Everybody understands we need to eat better," Roman says. And the foods that Food Bus schools are distributing - everything from fruit to cheese -to hummus -are exactly what many food banks are looking for.
"I'll take hummus over sheet cake any day," Roman says.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The holidays can feel like the time to donate to a food bank. You want to help, of course. But here's the reality - some food pantries don't want the foods people are giving. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Every Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m., Therese Dyer-Caplan opens the doors of the McLean Baptist Church in Fairfax County, Va., and welcomes in a line of hungry people. The bright sun shone through the stained glass that lit up the sanctuary. Therese ushered us down a flight of stairs into the food pantry.
THERESE DYER-CAPLAN: We're just like a little mini grocery store. When you come in, these are very nice quality items. And, of course, everything here is donated.
AUBREY: There's a spread of fresh fruits, meats, cheeses, yogurts and a whole table filled with loaves of whole grain bread.
DYER-CAPLAN: And they're fresh. I mean, if you feel them, they're perfectly fresh.
AUBREY: Now, it hasn't always been this way. Food pantries used to be thought of as a repository for things nobody else wanted. So when grocery stores had a glut of sweets they could not sell they'd call Dyer-Caplan to take it.
DYER-CAPLAN: We've gotten calls from grocery stores saying, we have 100 cupcakes and sheet cakes; will you take them? The answer is no.
AUBREY: Dyer-Caplan says she realized several years ago that if she filled the whole food pantry with these kinds of empty calories full of sugar nobody needs, it would be a disservice, especially given the shift she's seen over the years in the families who come here.
DYER-CAPLAN: Well, you can see it firsthand. You can see that children are heavier. They're hungry, but they're heavy.
AUBREY: With this in mind, Dyer-Caplan started looking for new kinds of donations. Who had nutritious foods they'd be willing to donate? It turns out the answer was almost staring her in the face. Right across the street at the Franklin Sherman Elementary School, lots of perfectly good food was being tossed out.
DAVID DUGGAL: We have, like, bananas, yogurt, apple, one milk carton, a peanut butter sandwich and a cheese stick.
AUBREY: That's sixth grader David Duggal listing all of the foods that the kids at his lunch table leave on their trays and don't eat.
NICOLA HOPPER: All of it got thrown in the trash.
LEXI RETTY: So it honestly all just got piled up in a garbage dump.
NICOLA: That's Nicola hopper and Lexi Retty (ph). They say there are lots of reasons the kids don't eat everything on their trays. They either pack too much, don't like what the cafeteria serves or this excuse...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I didn't have time to eat.
AUBREY: When the school tallied up all of the unopened, uneaten food in the cafeteria, turns out to be about a hundred pounds every week. That's more than 3,000 pounds a year.
DAVID: I thought, wow, that is a lot of food we didn't eat.
AUBREY: Now, at the same time that the food pantry was seeking out more nutritious foods, a mom in the Fairfax County school district named Kathleen Dietrich decided to do something about all this waste in schools.
KATHLEEN DIETRICH: It was a mountain of food, and it had to be tossed out. That was the regulation.
AUBREY: Dietrich says, for food safety reasons, most school cafeterias don't allow food that's been purchased to be returned to the line. So in order to salvage all of it, Dietrich arranged to buy extra refrigerators and store it. Now, every Friday, the kids at Franklin Sherman hall everything they've collected over to the food pantry.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I feel like I'm helping people who really, really need it.
AUBREY: Dyer-Caplan at the food pantry says the donations are a godsend.
DYER-CAPLAN: Oh, my goodness. We're so grateful, and the clients are so grateful.
AUBREY: And the model is spreading. Kathleen Dietrich founded an organization called Food Bus that now salvages the wasted bounty from school cafeterias in more than 40 schools across the country. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.