The Food Bank’s 2017 Accomplishments Report said 61 percent of the foods it distributed were considered healthy, the highest annual percentage in its 36-year history.

The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri had its healthiest year in 2017, with plans to continue this trend in 2018, the organization said in its annual report.

The Food Bank’s 2017 Accomplishments Report said 61 percent of the foods it distributed were considered healthy, the highest annual percentage in its 36-year history.

Increasing healthy foods, which The Food Bank labels “foods to encourage,” has been a push several years in the making. The category includes fresh dairy, protein, grains and produce. Traditional food drives collect non-perishable foods such as canned or boxed goods that are easy to store and transport. They are also cheaper. The Food Bank began purchasing more fresh foods by increasing its fundraising.

Low-income households are less likely to have their own vehicles for regular food shopping in full-service grocery stores and healthy food is often more expensive, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Those who skip meals to save money might overeat when food is available and that imbalance in food intake can contribute to weight gain.

“We took a step back and thought that non-perishable foods are traditionally what” low-income households “buy because they’re cheaper, but we wanted to be a part of the solution,” said Janese Heavin, spokeswoman for The Food Bank. 

The organization hopes its efforts to deliver more fresh food can help improve health among the hungry, Heavin said.

By encouraging monetary donations, The Food Bank began purchasing non-perishable food and putting emphasis on the quality of food it distributes instead of the number of pounds. In 2017, the Food Bank distributed more than 29.8 million pounds of food. In years past, it has distributed more 31 million pounds. Heavin said this is because non-perishable foods, such as a can or a boxed food item, often weigh more than vegetables, protein or grains.

In2Action, an organization that provides transitional support to those newly released from prison, is one of The Food Bank’s partners. Executive Director Dan Hanneken said the healthier food has made a difference for the people his organization serves by providing food they might not have eaten before.

“I see these guys get as excited ... to look at fresh blueberries and strawberries and they sometimes don’t even know what to do with the food because they never had it,” Hanneken said. “It breaks my heart that they were once in a place in life that they didn’t even know where their next meal was coming from.”

Before the partnership with The Food Bank, In2Action would provide a $100 Walmart gift card to purchase food and clients would buy as much food as they could get without taking into account nutritional value, Hanneken said.

The Food Bank secured several grants to address issues with storing and transporting refrigerated foods. In early 2017, the organization received a grant from the Morgan Stanley Foundation and Feeding America to double its produce storage space and add more shelves in the cooler.

Disney’s Share the Joy campaign and Feeding America provided a $15,000 grant for The Food Bank to purchase five coolers that are loaned to food pantries that do not have adequate refrigeration.

“If our agencies cannot keep it fresh, it runs the risk of going to waste,” Director of Operations Daryle Bascom said in the report.

Job Point, a career planning and job placement assistance organization that provides breakfast and lunch to its students, received more than 15,000 pounds of food in 2017. Vice President Nancy Silver said her organization has to carefully budget its storage space when ordering food from The Food Bank to make sure nothing goes to waste. Job Point has two freezers but only one refrigerator.

“We don’t want to take more food from the bank than we can use but we also want to provide our students with the most nutritious and delicious meals we can,” Silver said.

The emphasis on healthy, perishable foods has helped Job Point as well. The organization uses grant money to purchase meat and other protein items, but The Food Bank’s increase in providing these products saves Job Point money.

“We can stretch those grant dollars further because we don’t have to purchase as much anymore,” Silver said. “Long-term that money that we’re able to save is going to last longer.”

The Food Bank also is investing in mobile pantries — refrigerated box trucks that can deliver 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of food. The Food Bank has four trucks.

“We hope it’s the beginning of something we can do every year that we can improve health of communities we serve,” Silver said.