Food pantries nationwide are making efforts to increase the amount of fresh produce distributed to neighbors in need of food. Yet, increasing access to fresh produce may not be enough to encourage healthier eating behaviors.
Feeding Tampa Bay and the University of South Florida conducted a research study, “The Last Mile of Food Pantry Food”, to investigate the barriers and facilitators to consuming food distributed at food pantries, especially fresh produce, along with other information on how clients used the food that they receive. During this study, Feeding Tampa Bay learned that a lack of cooking skills was a barrier to increasing the use of produce that clients were given. Clients shared that because of their unfamiliarity with an item, produce or otherwise, it was likely that they would not take the food offered that day or would give it away to someone else. Recipe cards, meant to provide meal ideas for items, were also critiqued since they were not useful to those who were illiterate or who spoke another language. However, clients were open to learning how to cook different items and considered the role of social support networks, like friends and family, important in increasing one’s knowledge of preparing meals. As one client explained:
“Every time I get [eggplant] I’ll just give it away. Until eventually one of [the people] I gave it to… was cooking it and I tasted it. Wow, it was good.”
At Feeding Tampa Bay, we used this feedback to improve our programs. With the help of partners like the Kiwanis Club, Feeding Tampa Bay purchased a mobile kitchen. The Nutrition Kitchen, as it came to be known, came stocked with all types of cooking equipment, including the kitchen sink! This has created new opportunities to host cooking demonstrations at pantries using the produce available at the site.
Cooking demonstrations show that the produce can be cooked in a healthy, quick, and simple way. Clients can watch the health educator chop the produce, sauté, bake, or blend ingredients from beginning to end and give clients a chance to taste the produce before taking it home. Cooking demonstrations also provide a chance to discuss the health benefits of fresh produce and encourages the exchanging of recipes. One client expressed after a cooking demonstration of roasting beets:
“I had never liked beets before, I knew they were good for my sugar but had only had them juiced. Now I know how to cook it differently and it’s actually pretty good!”
Feeding Tampa Bay plans on expanding the use of the Nutrition Kitchen across our ten county area while continuing to gather feedback from the community on how to build and improve programs. The efforts made by food banks and food pantries are important for the people experiencing food insecurity, but feedback from clients is essential to improving the programs. Research and education bring about effective strategies to combat hunger and the health consequences that come with it.
Karen Díaz Serrano serves as the Community Health and Nutrition Coordinator for Feeding Tampa Bay and is currently enrolled at the University of South Florida to obtain her Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology.