Having easy access to healthy foods is not always an option for some residents in Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties. Staff and volunteers at University of Illinois Extension are working together to provide healthy foods and education about preparing those foods to people in areas considered food insecure.
According to the USDA, food insecure is defined as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life and uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.” This is a growing issue in the community as 12-15% of those in our four counties experience food insecurity (Feeding America).
U of I Extension Master Gardeners and SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed) staff worked together to connect hunger and health by collaborating with two food pantries to deliver fresh produce weekly. Master Gardeners and 4-H volunteers and members worked together to plant, coordinate, and harvest produce which was then donated to Mission of Hope pantry in Havana and Common Place in Peoria. Over 250lbs of produce was donated during the 2018 harvest season.
“Food insecurity closely ties to health,” explained SNAP-Ed Educator Kaitlyn Streitmatter. “Research shows us those who are food insecure have a higher risk of developing diabetes, hypertension, and various other health problems.” This issue is especially pertinent as food insecure individuals use food pantries as a source for emergency food. Commonly found foods in pantries are high in sodium and added sugars which only exacerbate the challenge to manage one’s health when food insecure.
Extension SNAP-Ed staff worked with both pantries to create a more healthful food environment. The process started with an environmental assessment in which SNAP-Ed and pantry staff determined the needs of each pantry. “Because our volunteers provided fresh produce, it was also important to educate pantry goers on how to cook and prepare it,” explained Streitmatter. “We provided nutrition education and recipes to encourage people to eat the produce.”
Over the course of the summer, seasonal recipes were provided to the pantry, healthful messaging was implemented, and other food safety policies were put into place. Havana’s Mission of Hope went from an assessment score of 9 to an assessment score of 24. The pantry made improvements by increasing marketing of healthful produce, providing various types of fruits and/or vegetables, and promoting additional resources for the low-income clientele.
Common Place pantry started with an assessment score of 11 and after the work with SNAP-Ed staff, they reached a score of 27. “At this pantry, volunteers ‘bundled’ foods together to help guests plan healthier meals,” said Streitmatter. “To encourage produce selection, volunteers were trained on how to ‘nudge’ pantry guests to make the healthier choice.” After these strategies were implemented, the pantry reported great success. The guests especially appreciated when the bundled items were paired with a recipe. “The recipes taste good and make eating healthy a lot easier,” stated one happy pantry goer.