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Food banks try to stock more fruits and vegetables

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The St. Vincent de Paul Society’s food pantry on East 30th Street houses a free health clinic, where clients with high blood pressure are told to cut their sodium consumption.

Those same clients then push their shopping carts past bins of salt-laden canned food and crackers.

The conflicting messages aren’t lost on Pat Jerrell, president of the society’s Indianapolis council.

“We know it’s something we need to work on,” he said.

St. Vincent de Paul, which operates the largest food pantry in the state, is one of many hunger-relief charities trying to get their hands on more fresh produce. It’s not an easy task. Second-rate and leftover fruit and vegetables abound, but the distribution network is fragmented.

When supermarkets reject entire truckloads, it’s up to the drivers, who are independent contractors, to empty their cargo at a food bank, rather than a dump. Supermarkets dispose of meat, dairy and produce nearing expiration dates. Only within the past 12 months have they begun allowing food banks to rescue food.

Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana is the main supplier for pantries in 21 central Indiana counties. Until the past year, produce was not a major emphasis of its distribution. Of the 15.9 million pounds of food distributed in 2008, about 1.3 million pounds, or 8 percent, was produce.

CEO Pamela Altmeyer-Alvey said a new relationship with Kroger helped increase the amount of produce 109 percent, to 2.4 million pounds, in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

“We’ve been able to step up the quantity,” Altmeyer-Alvey said.

Altmeyer-Alvey

Gleaners is part of the Chicago-based network Feeding America, which has set up shelf-rescue programs with several major grocery chains, including Kroger and Wal-Mart. Altmeyer-Alvey said Kroger has also helped redirect more rejected truckloads of produce to the food bank.

Second Helpings, a local organization that specializes in perishable food, also benefits from Kroger’s shelf-rescue program.

Gleaners is still looking for new sources. One possibility is growing food on city park land, an idea floated by Indy Parks Director Stuart Lowry.

While Gleaners wants to make better-quality food available, it’s struggling just to maintain its overall volume of all donated food.

“Manufacturers are getting more efficient and wringing every penny out of what they’ve produced,” Altmeyer-Alvey said.

Dollar stores are also competing with food banks for second-rate packaged foods. As a result, Feeding America reports that donations of “unsalables” have decreased 7 percent in each of the past eight years.

Produce is a growth category that can help pick up the slack.

But handling produce comes with its own challenges.

Shelf-rescue programs, for example, mean food banks will need more refrigerated trucks they can dispatch on short notice, said Ross Fraser, spokesman at Feeding America.

Gleaners pays 14 cents to 16 cents per pound to have produce that comes directly from farms washed and repackaged, Altmeyer-Alvey said.

“The more successful we are at getting food in, the more we have to pay to get it done,” she said.

The food bank has one staff member who oversees fresh food. Altmeyer-Alvey said the organization consulted industry manuals and volunteers. “We have taught ourselves a great deal.”

Despite the food banks’ recent efforts, pantries are often short of fresh food.

“They could use more here,” said one St. Vincent de Paul client, who identified himself only as Arnold.

The refrigerator stood empty that Tuesday afternoon. Early in the day, it held lettuce, peppers, pears, and prepared mashed potatoes. There were even five flats of mushrooms and a large container of raspberries.

“We’ve had 900 people shopping today,” day manager Jake Asher said. “They kindly pick us clean.”

The pantry relies on several sources, including Second Helpings and Midwest Food Bank, a faith-based organization with a facility south of Indianapolis.

The pantry also started its own garden and buys produce. The next step, Jerrell said, is to show clients how to use the odd surplus vegetables that show up.

“What do you do with a turnip?”•

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