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Forklifts scurry through Feeding America San Diego’s Sorrento Valley warehouse, shifting crates of donated food around like Tetris blocks. Volunteers break down towering boxes of cereal. Others hunt for moldy oranges to toss in the garbage.

And then, there’s the compost.

It’s what Jennifer Gilmore, the hunger relief organization’s executive director, jokingly calls a dumpster full of junk food. Rejected Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups sit neglected on top of the garbage heap. Volunteers empty sodas and store the cans and bottles for recycling.

Photo by Brian Myers

Feeding America supplies 23 million pounds of food each year to 160 churches and nonprofits that distribute it to hungry San Diegans. It took a stand against sugar-sweetened beverages and candy donations four years ago. And next year, it plans to go further. It wants 100 percent of what goes out to families in need to be healthy.

The move, funded in part by the Dennis and Pamela Mudd Charitable Foundation, is in response to a changing hunger landscape. Food banks were intended to be an emergency option, but now they’re a chronic necessity, Gilmore said.

“The reality is they’re relying on us for a much longer period of time, and with that comes a responsibility about the types of food you distribute,” Gilmore said. ” It’s not just about providing people with calories; it’s about providing families with nutritious food.”

In recent months, lawmakers have let temporary stimulus increases to food stamps and other welfare assistance programs expire. But Gilmore said low-income San Diegans are still trying to shake off the Great Recession.

Indeed, a 2013 Pew Research study shows the economic growth that signaled a recovery in 2009 was felt only among the wealthiest Americans. Despite a 14 percent increase in the overall net worth of the nation’s households, 93 percent of families saw their net worth decline in 2011. An Associated Press survey of prominent economists this month suggests the income gap is still growing.

Gisela Moreno said the lines at South Bay Community Services’ food distributions are getting longer – and more diverse. She was at the Feeding America warehouse earlier this month picking up discounted food for her organization’s 5,000 clients.

“There’s families that get off work – sometimes they’re construction workers, they’re nurses, sometimes they come in in business slacks and so forth – and ask if they have to show proof,” Moreno said.

The Chips Myth

Moreno said her organization – and more importantly, her clients – are on board with the changes at Feeding America, which has already reached a 75 percent healthy inventory that’s half fresh produce.

“We have seen a great reaction with the produce,” Moreno said. “When they see fresh celery, carrots and yams, they’re very excited.”

Gilmore said Feeding America frequently surveys food recipients, and their answers consistently shatter the perception that poor people prefer junk food.

“What we’re doing is responding to the requests of families we serve,” Gilmore said. “I’ve never had a family come up to me and say, ‘You know what I could really use that I can never find in my neighborhood? More chips and more soda.’”

But hunger relief organizations have been slow to respond to the call for healthy food. Until recently, the mission was more about filling bellies than nutrition, and storing fresh foods can be costly.

What Tiger Woods Has to Do With It

Gilmore said Feeding America’s “ah-ha” moment happened in 2009.

That year, Tiger Woods was on every Gatorade bottle in the country. When news of affairs between Woods and multiple women made headlines, those bottles were pulled off shelves and shipped to food banks throughout the country, including Feeding America.

Food banks typically measure success in pounds of food distributed. With the addition of a heavy Gatorade donation, Feeding America’s rating skyrocketed that year.

“We were like, ‘Wow! We’re doing such good,’” Gilmore said. “But when you look back at the nutritional value of the food we had distributed to the most vulnerable in this community, it was an ah-ha moment for us. We thought, ‘Are we helping or are we harming?’”

Feeding America still measures pounds, but it now also calculates the number of nutritionally balanced meals it provides to families in need.

What Do We Do With Our Cheerios?

Gatorade doesn’t seem all that bad when soda and candy still sneak into the Feeding America warehouse. But when Gilmore says the goal is to go 100 percent healthy, she means really healthy.

Take a recent shipment of cereal boxes from General Mills. Previously when cereal came through the doors, volunteers would tape up torn boxes and – barring any contamination – send the boxes out for distribution.

Now they check the nutrition labels first. They’re looking for boxes with less than 10 grams of sugar and three or more grams of dietary fiber. According to Feeding America’s team of nutrition experts, those are the keepers.

Photo by Brian Myers

A box of Honey Nut Cheerios doesn’t make the cut. It’s fine on the sugar but has only two grams of fiber.

“So then the question as an organization is, ‘Well what do we do with our Cheerios?’” Gilmore said.

They’ll make it to cereal bowls throughout the county this month. But Gilmore and her staff are working to educate their donors – mostly food manufacturers, grocery stores and corporations – so foods that don’t make the nutrition cut stop coming through the facility next year. Smaller donations of nearly-healthy foods, like Cheerios, would get rerouted instead of tossed. And with support from foundations, they’ll purchase fruits, vegetables and other healthy items, which food banks can access at significantly discounted rates.

The Leftovers

Across town at St. Mark’s Church in City Heights, Joanna Widner won’t get any fresh produce this week.

“It’s like a surprise,” Widner said. “You never know exactly what you’re going to get, but you try to make the best of what you do get.”

St. Mark’s calls its tiny food pantry a food cupboard. The church relies almost entirely on donations from small-scale food drives and churchgoers – people like Carol Hopkins of Christ Church Coronado.

Photo by Brian Myers

“We’ve definitely had a learning curve,” Hopkins said. “In days past we’ve donated a number of boxes of Trix – maybe I shouldn’t say the names of the cereals – but sugar-coated cereals, only to find out that’s not what these people want. They only get one bag of food. With one bag of food, they want it to be a healthful as possible.”

Hopkins said her church’s donations have slowly shifted from Trix to oatmeal, and from white rice to brown. And she says learning of Feeding America’s goal to go 100 percent healthy has encouraged her to donate money that St. Mark’s can spend at the Feeding America warehouse.

But the reality is, small pantries like St. Mark’s will take what they can get. And as Feeding America works to meet its goal, there’s a good chance its rejects will trickle down to the cupboard-sized pantries — at least in the beginning.

Holding a box of Cheerios back at Feeding America, Gilmore said the larger goal is to change the whole system of hunger assistance.

“It doesn’t mean that this donation will not make it to hungry families,” Gilmore said. “It just means that as we are partnering more and more with health care organizations, as more and more of our pantries are seeing the prevalence of diabetes skyrocket, the demand for this product is going to decrease.”

Video by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

Megan Burks

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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