MILWAUKEE — The season of giving has started, with schools, churches and businesses kicking off food drives that have become annual holiday traditions. But many food banks are asking donors to think twice before dropping ramen noodles and frosted cereals in donation barrels.
Many commonly donated foods are high in salt, sugar or calories, making them poor choices for people with high blood pressure, diabetes and other diet-related health problems. With more people turning to food banks and for longer periods of time, agency officials say they need donations but they'd like to see people give the kind of healthy and nutritious items they'd serve to their own families.
Sherrie Tussler, the executive director of the Hunger Task Force's Milwaukee office, said people tend to donate cheap foods without paying much attention to the nutrition content — and they may do so with the best of intentions. For example, people who fondly recall living off of ramen noodles in college tend to donate them to food banks, even though a single serving can have half the recommended daily allowance of sodium.
"We say, if that's what you're going to give, turn around and get a bag of rice," Tussler said. "It's just as good a value, it lasts for more meals and there's no salt."
Pantry officials also say they receive plenty of soups, along with processed foods such as ravioli. Many varieties are heavy on calories and salt and light on nutrients. Better choices would be low-sodium soups and bags of whole-wheat pasta.
Tussler also recommended avoiding fruit packed in heavy syrups and drinks that aren't 100 percent juice — which are often diluted with sugar water.
Those are the type of products that could kill Dorothy Jones, a 63-year-old diabetic who picks up food once a month at a Milwaukee food pantry to supplement her Social Security checks. Jones has to watch her sugar intake, and after a heart attack two months ago, her doctor also told her to reduce her intake of salt, fats and carbohydrates. Jones said she understands the impulse to try to lift people's spirits with cookies and other treats "but they're no good for a diabetic."
"To be honest I'd rather have fruit," she said.
That's an item most food drive organizers won't accept because of concerns about spoilage, and many donors — on tight budgets themselves — don't feel they can spring for.
But many larger food banks also receive food from corporate donors — retailers, grocery stores and food manufacturers — and groups that grow fruits and vegetables. Those donations go a long way toward helping them provide healthy meals. Cindy McCown, a director at the Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose, Calif., said nearly half of what her organization provides is fresh produce.
That kind of help is important to people like Patricia Howard, 50, who picked up a bag of groceries at a Salvation Army pantry in Milwaukee. She needs iron because she has anemia and said she'd rather get it by eating leafy greens than taking supplements. The grocery bag she received recently included peanut butter, spaghetti, tomato sauce and corn flakes — all foods that she said were valuable.
"The fact that people donate something, I'm grateful for that," Howard said. "But I just hope people ask themselves, 'Am I giving something healthy?'"
The Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelter, gets the bulk of its donations from corporations, and executive Bob Dolgan said it doesn't accept candy, chips and soda.
"We also don't see those items as being in demand in pantries," he said. "They want meat, dairy, bread, produce."
So what foods are healthy, in demand and inexpensive enough not to bust donors' budgets? Food bank operators recommend nonperishables such as:
— low-sugar cereal such as Cheerios or Chex;
— peanut butter;
— cans or plastic containers of juice (make sure it's 100 percent juice);
— canned vegetables, any variety, marked lite or low-sodium;
— bags of pinto or black beans;
— canned tuna fish;
— and powdered milk fortified with vitamin D.
Donors should avoid:
— foods high in sodium, fat, oils or sugar;
— chips, candy, cookies and crackers
— sugary beverages;
— items in glass bottles;
— and items that are expired or in damaged packaging.
Some food pantries are equipped to accept frozen foods such as turkey, chicken and vegetables and other perishables like fruit and milk, but donors should call ahead.
The simplest — and most appreciated — donation is cash. Pantry officials can use the money — cash or grocery gift cards — to buy whatever healthy staples are in low supply. Also, because they purchase in bulk, they get more for the money than the average grocery shopper does.
"A $15 donation goes a long way toward getting fresh, healthy stuff," Tussler said. "People say $15 doesn't do much because it only buys one meal but really, it makes a big difference."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.