September 15, 2008

Beyond Cheetos: ; Some Food Pantries Looking Deeper at Their Clients’ Diets

By Tara Tuckwiller

Not long ago, a woman visited the Catholic Charities food pantry in Webster County. She said she had already gotten food from another food pantry, but would it be OK if she got some at this one, too?

"The only thing they were giving out was Cheetos and Peeps," the woman confided. "And I'm kind of sick of Peeps."

That sort of story isn't uncommon, said Tina Cogar, outreach coordinator for the Webster Springs pantry. Her pantry - and four others started by Catholic Charities in West Virginia - tries to be the antidote.

"Food pantries are more than just handing out whatever you've got a truckload of," Cogar said. "It's not just about whatever you can get from the grocery stores that's expiring."

The program is called "Wellness Works." Debbie Scott, regional director of Catholic Charities West Virginia, started it six years ago. She'd had a chance meeting while visiting the Webster Springs pantry - a young woman who needed food.

"I found out she had bitten into an apple and broke her jaw," Scott said. "She went to the emergency room. The doctor told her that her nutrition growing up had been so poor, she had done permanent damage to her bones."

She was 18 years old.

"That's not acceptable. That shouldn't be happening," Scott said. "That's something you hear about in Somalia or places where there has been extreme famine, but not in the United States. Not in West Virginia."

'We're treating them with dignity'

Five Catholic Charities pantries - in Monongalia, Pocahontas, Preston, Taylor and Webster counties - quit just handing out food. They started asking clients about their health first.

"We found that roughly 90 percent have at least one chronic health issue they're dealing with," Scott said. For example, one out of every three people who come to the Webster County pantry has high blood pressure. One in five has diabetes. One in seven has heart disease.

Some are elderly. Some are children.

"We have to do better than just provide food," Scott said. "Are we doing a diabetic any favor if we give them food that is not appropriate to their diabetic diet?"

Today, every new client gets a health screening. Workers have a list of more than 30 health problems to ask about. Each client gets written information about any health problems they have. And then they go look at the food.

"I have all of the shelves labeled," Cogar explained. "We have specialty racks with low-sodium vegetables, sugar-free fruit. We try to keep Ensure for cancer patients or other people who need it.

"They can choose what they want, what their family will eat."

Sounds simple, but Scott points out it's not the way most food pantries operate.

"[Clients] say things like, 'You mean you're inviting me into your pantry?' and 'I can actually have a choice?' They don't know what to say. They're so full of gratitude simply because we're treating them with dignity. ...

"I think the problem is, pantries are just so involved in trying to get the food and trying to get it out. There are also, I think, a lot of attitudes among a lot of very well-intentioned people: If this person is poor, they ought to take what they can get."

Feeding a family on minimum wage

Working parents with children make up a large part of the food pantries' clientele, Scott said.

"At minimum wage, they don't make enough money to feed their family," she said.

And there are more of them every month. The Preston County pantry alone has seen a 40 percent jump in clients since last year.

"We've got people who have never needed our help who are coming in," Scott said. "That's very worrisome."

Food prices can be especially high in rural areas, where there aren't many competing grocery stores. Cogar checked prices for a load of healthful foods for the pantry at stores in Webster County, and then compared them with prices in Summersville. The same cart in Webster County cost nearly $200 more - and the stores there didn't even carry some of the healthful choices.

Currently, the five Catholic Charities food pantries in Scott's region are the only ones in the state providing the Wellness Works program.

"We're advocating every Catholic Charities food pantry in the state to start this program," Scott said. She also works with churches and other organizations that run food pantries. For information, contact Scott at 292-6597 or [email protected]

Reach Tara Tuckwiller at [email protected] or 348-5189.

Originally published by Staff writer.

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