Backus Hospital registered dietician Shannon Haynes spent time at the St. Vincent de Paul community food pantry last week to provide insight to staff and volunteers about food and nutrition.
The pantry, which serves 500 families a week, is working to launch a program in which patrons with specific health issues can receive the healthiest items possible. The conditions include kidney disease, heart disease and diabetes. Hartford HealthCare will also provide handouts to help guide staff and volunteers as they pack food boxes for distribution, and additional flyers to provide to pantry clients.
Food pantry manager Brian Burke said the facility has about 2,000 families in the database, and serves about 500 each week. The pantry is open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and a family is allowed to come once a week. In addition to pantry staples, canned and boxed goods, fresh vegetables and meats are provided.
Burke said when they order supplies from Connecticut Food Share he utilizes their system of rating foods as Green (healthy), Yellow (fairly healthy), Red (not so healthy). Foods that are low in salt, fat or sugar get a green rating.
He welcomed the opportunity to learn more about nutrition and how foods interact with the body in order to make patrons make the healthiest choices possible. Haynes and the pantry staff literally went through the shelves pulling out boxes and reviewing the labels. Haynes noted that on a box of macaroni and cheese, for example, one serving would equal two-thirds of the daily recommendation for sodium. “And those serving sizes aren’t usually followed,” she said.
Haynes suggested creating a designated “low sodium” section of the pantry that included all items that were within standard nutritional guidelines to make it easier for clients perusing the shelves.
Burke and others also talked about the challenges of providing healthy food for people who have lots of challenges, ranging from outright homelessness to living somewhere like a motel that only has a microwave and small refrigerator. Making sure there are items they can either eat cold or with minimal equipment is important.
St. Vincent de Paul Executive Director Jillian Corbin wondered if offering samples to people of new items might help them make healthier choices. Cooking up some whole grain or vegetable-based pasta and offering tastes might get people over the hurdle of trying something new, she said. Whole grain pastas are better for people living with diabetes, Haynes explained because eating too many carbs can cause inflammation, weight gain, and higher blood sugars—especially in patients with diabetes.