Darren Chapman is a graduate student at the University of Missouri in the Rural Sociology Department. He works with Grow Well Missouri and the Foundation for Health to study ways for food panties to better access to healthy food. He also works with pantries to help them build capacity around what they do well and develop partnership. He has worked with food pantries from Shelbina to Joplin, 15 communities in all.
“Churches play a big role and are particularly effective when they transition away from their food pantry being something based out of one church, to a combined effort with other churches and organizations in the community,” Chapman said.
Even when regional food banks are issuing the food, they are often dependent on churches for distribution, because churches may be the only social support that exists in many rural communities.
“It really helps when churches join forces and combine resources,” Chapman said.
Chapman would like to see the quality of food improve at food banks. One challenge is many food pantries are only open once or twice a month, and high-quality, fresh produce doesn’t have that kind of shelf life. Processed food does, but it also tends to be high in sugar, sodium or fat, which contribute to health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure and hypertension. Food pantry clients are two to three times more likely to have these ailments than the general population, which can lead to them missing work more often and having difficulty keeping a job.
In some communities, it has worked to create connections between farmers and food banks. One farmer donates hundreds of pounds of sweet corn; another has donated cucumbers. Another offered pork.
“The farmers can sometimes gain some tax incentives and feel good about not wasting the food. The challenge is in coordinating the donation of something perishable with the established food distribution time,” he said.
The whole food pantry system has really emerged in the last 30 years, following a decrease in direct government food support for people living in poverty. Last year in Missouri, food pantries distributed 117 million pounds of food. Food pantries that use government food banks often have a much greater access to food, but then need to deal with regulations put in place to ensure that people aren’t going to multiple food pantries to obtain more than their allotted amount of food.
Chapman worries about decreasing governmental support and increasing reliance on charity, especially when he looks at who is volunteering. When it comes to food insecurity in Missouri, children are the most affected, second to the elderly.
“Many of food pantries are relying on volunteers who are retirees. How long is that sustainable?” Chapman said. “Moving palettes of food is not a great job for an aging population.”
Connecting within a community is important. Networks play a vital role. When you move to a more formal fashion of networks, you see capacity building and an opportunity to create identity around a cause. He hopes to see networks develop further to reduce the dichotomy of hunger in state that feeds much of the country.