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Producing Change: Food banks face challenges as they move from canned to fresh food 

"A lot of people are really hungry for fresh food."

Sam Pozutto of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank shuttles boxes of cabbage across the Duquesne warehouse.

Photo by Heather Mull

Sam Pozutto of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank shuttles boxes of cabbage across the Duquesne warehouse.

A few weeks ago, Jeralyn Beach got an email asking whether she could take 40,000 pounds of stage-two bananas. She knew it would stretch her staff: They had to be picked up in Philadelphia within 24 hours, weighed, cataloged and coordinated with local pantries that could get them into their clients' stomachs before reaching stage seven, the last gasp of the fruit's mushy demise.

By the time the bananas arrived in Pittsburgh a day later, they were at stage four. Beach, the produce coordinator for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, knew she'd have to be creative to avoid wasting the food bank's already stretched budget — or worse, "dumping" fresh produce because she couldn't get it out the door in time.

She coordinated the food bank's workers, who effortlessly glide around their massive Duquesne warehouse on electric forklifts, to stack the bananas to maximize the amount of airflow between boxes and slow the ripening process — which had to be done by hand, one box at a time.

"We didn't end up dumping" the bananas, Beach says, with a casual inflection that suggests these logistical challenges don't rattle her.

That's a good thing, because her produce-procurement job is only going to get more complicated. The food bank is part of a national trend away from the shelf-stable items that typically line pantry aisles in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables. The food bank has set an ambitious goal: within three to five years, 50 percent of what it distributes will be produce — almost double the six million pounds of produce the organization moved last year.

click to enlarge Forklift  full of cabbages at food bank
  • Photo by Heather Mull

But distributing more produce doesn't simply mean replacing cans of beans and boxes of rice with pallets of celery, apples and potatoes. The food bank will have to reorient its supply chain around an unforgiving product. It ripens too quickly in certain humidities, and not quickly enough in others. It creates costs for local pantries that must either invest in refrigeration or be in frequent phone contact with the food bank to determine what produce is on hand — and with local farmers who may have overproduced a crop that needs to be picked up right away.

And even if you've managed to build the most efficient supply chain possible, there's no guarantee that food-pantry clients will want more produce, or even have the tools to cook it.

"We had doubts about whether there was a lot of client demand for fresh produce; we had doubts about whether we could deliver it properly," says Josh Murphy, director of distribution programs at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. And it's not just about delivery: "If you're the second or third generation of a family who lives in a neighborhood without a grocery store, you might not know what to do with fresh kale."

Still, food-bank administrators know they can feed more people with fruits and vegetables; non-perishable items have become as much as three times as expensive as produce. And they also know there's a significant public-health upside to getting this right: more fresh food on the tables of low-income families, who are often at the whim of a food industry that pushes low-cost fat, salt and sugar.

"People may think of us as boxed meals ... not always the healthiest products: snacks, cookies, crackers, candy, soda pop," says food-bank CEO Lisa Scales. "There has been significant change [toward produce] in the past three years."

click to enlarge Grocery warehouse
  • Photo by Heather Mull

By the mid-1970s, the can was king. Thirty billion units of canned goods were being manufactured annually and America loved it, according to Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America. That organization supplies just over half of the Greater Pittsburgh food bank's produce and is the largest food-distribution network in the country.

"The concept of canning was a miracle ... that you could have corn 12 months in the year," Fraser says. On top of the canning boom, manufacturing practices weren't particularly precise, which was good news for food banks.

Big food companies "just guessed what [they] needed," Fraser says, and what they couldn't put on the shelves or fit in a warehouse, "a manufacturer would usually just say, ‘Let's just donate that to a food pantry.'"

By the early 2000s, food manufacturers weren't guessing anymore. "You have integrated your supply chain, and have a vast computer network ensuring you are getting your supplies just as you need them, so you aren't blowing needless money on refrigeration/storage," writes the food bank's Murphy.

Simultaneously, Americans gravitated toward fresher foods, and production of canned goods across the board plummeted to about 10 billion units per year, Fraser says.

"It really felt like the bottom dropped out," Scales says. "We have significantly less donated product from when I started in 1996. ... It's caused us to buy a lot more food."

Scales' colleagues say she's made the shift to produce the food bank's top priority. To pull it off, she has brought in people like Don Ziegler, a consultant with GENCO, a company that helps businesses operate more efficiently.

"It's really just applying the rules we use in a commercial venue to a nonprofit," Ziegler says. "We're looking to change the whole inventory system. Produce really hasn't been a mainstay of that."

One of the changes he's hoping will take hold early this year is a web-based system that will let the food bank manage its produce inventory in real time. That will improve the current model, where food-bank staffers must constantly check to see what is in stock and update a website accessible to member agencies.

Beach, the produce coordinator, says the new system should create a more equitable distribution of produce, since the food bank will be able to track what produce is going to a given agency.

But even with a new inventory system, there are significant infrastructural hurdles.

"Our building wasn't built to handle produce," Beach says. She has limited cooler space and can't always store fruits and vegetables at the optimal temperature.

"And that's just on our end." Many of the pantries operate in church basements or other buildings that "may or may not have any cooler space," Beach says.

Perfecting the supply chain is only half the battle. The food bank is also working to "market" produce to food pantries and offer education to families who might not otherwise use produce regularly.

click to enlarge Food Bank, yams
  • Photo by Heather Mull

Judy Dodd, a registered dietitian and professor in Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, explains that low-income families know they should be eating better, but often don't have the tools or the access.

"The people I work with know what they should be eating," says Dodd, who has consulted for Giant Eagle, the food bank and the WIC program. She adds that risks for health problems from heart disease to stroke are lessened by more healthful diets. "But I think about a mom with two kids ... How much time is [she] going to take? She needs the recipes, she needs the ideas, she needs the equipment. ... It [isn't] enough just to put [produce] on their plate."

Jesse Sharrard, the food bank's food-safety and nutrition manager, understands this challenge — especially when the food bank gets something "weirder."

Like the time it got 2,000 pounds of chestnuts and he had to come up with visual step-by-step cooking instructions.

Sharrard is also banking on initiatives like "Kids Cook," an interactive after-school and summer program, to get younger family members thinking about produce.

"When it comes down to it, we have an easier time getting kids to participate in a long-format class like that — parents typically are busy," Sharrard says. The idea is that by influencing kids' eating habits, not only will they have the ability to cook healthier food for themselves, they can influence the diets of their parents and relatives.

There are some signs that people are responding well to the food bank's emphasis on produce.

The food bank's mobile produce pantry, "Produce to People," which operates in 16 locations each month, distributed food to 9,450 households in November — the highest monthly posting in its roughly eight-year history.

And while the shift to produce will likely have a public-health upside, food-bank staffers are careful not to be too sanguine.

"There are always educational gaps to look at," Murphy says. But, he adds, "A lot of people are really hungry for fresh food — they're excited to have access to it."

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