Healthy Pantry Initiative: Increasing Access to Fruits & Veggies

Squash is plentiful in fall and winter, but many people are unsure how to cook it. It’s a healthy option that’s often overlooked, but on a chilly winter day at the Lord’s Harvest Pantry in Monroe, a volunteer demonstrated how to cut and cook spaghetti squash. The demonstration stand is one of many elements of a new Gleaners-led initiative to provide easier access to healthy produce, as well as education to maintain a nutritious lifestyle.

The Lord’s Harvest Pantry is implementing the Gleaners Healthy Pantry Initiative by creating a marketplace that will look and feel like a small grocery store with fruit and vegetables prominently displayed. In addition to the cooking demonstration stand, a recipe rack will correlate with featured items. These are “nudges” to make healthy food an easy choice.

“Our new marketplace encourages people to pick healthier items,” says Sandy Imber, Food Programs Director. “We want to have options that fit individual situations. We’ll still have canned food, but now we’ll have a new refrigerated unit and baskets to hold more produce in a beautiful, enticing display.”

The Healthy Pantry Initiative is a pilot program with nine current partner agencies. These agencies are implementing changes to give food insecure families and seniors greater access to fruits and vegetables.

The trajectory of this project was influenced by direct feedback from clients. In focus groups conducted by Growth Capital Network, an independent evaluator, pantry patrons confirmed that fruits and vegetables were important to their families. And yet, of the pantries visited, three had no fresh produce available and others had a very limited selection. Thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan and support from Forgotten Harvest, who is helping to increase the variety of produce available and improve access to clients, Gleaners is making strides reach the southeast Michigan community and improve food security.

The Twelfth Street Food Pantry in Detroit is preparing for the arrival of a new walk-in cooler that will allow them to stock as much fresh produce as they need — something they weren’t able to do before because of storage constraints. They’re already seeing an increase in traffic as people learn that more fruits and vegetables will be available.

Back at the Lord’s Harvest Pantry, a woman noticed the increase in fresh produce. She’s a working senior with a diabetic husband. Finances are tight, and they do not receive government food assistance. She has an elderly friend who is too proud to come to the pantry for assistance, so she brings him food too. She planned to use the vegetables to make a soup and share it with her neighbor who is quadriplegic.

“I don’t know how to only cook a small amount. I enjoy cooking and taking it to others who need it.” She even volunteered to do a cooking demonstration at the pantry. “Younger people do not know how to cook fresh produce these days.”

In addition to cooking demonstrations, the Healthy Pantry Initiative’s multi-pronged approach includes other service elements such as a Healthy Ambassador. This is a trained volunteer who is available to walk with clients as they select food items, providing assistance and guidance about meal planning, budgeting, and cooking.

“We’re all learning a lot,” says Bobby Cooper, the Board Chair at Twelfth Street Food Pantry. “We have educators coming in to teach clients how to have a healthier lifestyle, but the volunteers learn a lot too.

And the more we learn, the more we can teach our clients.”

Gleaners will continue to work with Growth Capital to gain insights directly from clients over the course of this initiative. Only the voices of the families and seniors targeted by this project can confirm whether or not they are getting the right food, in the right amount, at the right time, as well as how that food is affecting their health and sense of food security.

You can read more stories like this and learn more about Gleaners in our Harvest Magazine.