The Nutrition Revolutionary
Local activist instituted sweeping nutritional guidelines and innovative food sourcing programs to ensure healthy food access for all
When does a box of macaroni and cheese become more harmful than helpful to a hungry person? The box can cost as little as 99 cents at a local Safeway supermarket, can be kept on the shelves for years and is easy to make.
All pluses for food pantries that serve low-income communities. But that same box also contains over 1,500 milligrams of sodium (or two-thirds of a person’s recommended daily intake), 720 calories and contains no fresh ingredients or fruits and vegetables.
“It was, frankly, from my perspective, just irresponsible to be giving these things to people, knowing how it was consumed,” said Sharon Feuer Gruber, the nutrition consultant at Bread for the City, the largest food pantry in Washington, D.C., serving more than 5,000 residents. Gruber’s job for the last four years has been to walk that fine line between making sure that as many of D.C.’s hungry as possible are fed on a daily basis, while not providing food that can cause long-term health problems.
“Bread for the City is very, very committed to treating clients with dignity and respect and not just giving them junk because it is free or cheap” said Gruber, a 37-year-old mother of two who moved to the Washington area from Berkeley, California, to work for Bread for the City. She lives in Silver Spring.
Bread for the City also offers a complete medical clinic, legal services, social services and clothing pantry. It often faces the paradoxical problems of hunger and obesity in the district’s poorest communities.
“When I started here about four years ago, Bread for the City had the goal of having food that more closely matched what the providers in the medical clinic were telling their patients to eat,” said Gruber, sitting in the clinic in Bread for the City’s Shaw offices. They also have an office in Anacostia. “So my job, in part, when I came on was to provide that link and ensure that the food in the food pantry was in fact helping the health of our clients.”
“But we can’t take away without adding,” Gruber said, so she went on a quest to get healthier food in cutting edge, entrepreneurial ways.
Gruber developed the highest nutritional standards for a food pantry in the D.C. area, and quickly realized that she couldn’t afford it. Responding to the economic realities of running a food panty in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Gruber worked with her biggest food supplier, the Capital Area Food Bank, to increase nutritional standards through the city. Then, to gain access to fresh food outside the already established food bank system, Gruber went directly to the farmers.
In 2008 she developed “Glean for the City,” the first program of its kind for a food pantry in Washington, D.C. Gleaning, or taking the extra food that wasn’t sold from farmers, orchards and farmers markets, allowed Gruber access to free, nutritious food that was local, usually organic, and delicious. Every harvest season, she and her volunteers go to farmers and gather whatever food they can. In total, the program brings in about 60,000 pounds of food, mostly vegetables.
This year, Gruber launched City Orchard, the nation’s first orchard run by a food pantry. Bread for the City partnered with University of the District of Columbia and Casey Trees, a local nonprofit working to increase the city’s tree canopy, to develop 2.75 acres of a land grant in Beltsville, Maryland. The orchard is funded by a USDA grant that covers the first two years of the program. This spring, with the help of Jeffrey Wankel, Bread for the City’s project manager, Gruber has been learning about irrigation and organic pest control and getting her hands dirty planting 1,000 trees.
“Fruit is hard to come by, and we certainly can’t afford to buy it. And so the orchard will provide a long-term, sustainable, organic mechanism for us to serve high-quality food to our clients,” Gruber said.
The orchard will have a continuous harvest from June to the end of October, including blueberries, blackberries, apples, persimmons and Asian pears. When the orchard is fully operational in 2014, Bread for the City will be able to provide approximately 40,000 pounds of fruit a year to the neediest people in Washington, D.C.
For Gruber the orchard program was the next step in the gleaning program. “I asked, ‘What fruit trees are grown locally? Is there anything grown locally? If not, why not? And what can we do to change that?’ It was really just me cold calling Casey Trees,” she said.
The summer harvest season’s added benefit is that it provides food for D.C. children during school vacation. “Kids are not as well nourished out of school because they depend on schools for meals,” Gruber said. “To be able to provide healthy snacks all summer long is a really big deal for us.”
City Orchard and Glean for the City have been well received by the communities Bread for the City serves.
“The communities we serve want to eat healthy, but the barriers are tremendous. People have disabilities and have to take public transportation to get to a grocery store,” Gruber said, adding that volunteering at the City Orchard has allowed many of Bread for the City’s clients to leave the D.C. city limits for the first time in their lives.
Along with acquiring healthy food for the pantry, Gruber provides nutritional information, performs cooking demonstrations and hands out recipes. She also organizes monthly free farmers markets in different D.C. neighborhoods and runs small rooftop gardens at both of the Bread for the City offices.
“My goal personally is for as many people as possible to have accurate information about how to take care of themselves through food. And to have access to affordable, nutritious, safe food that is also culturally appropriate.”
And does she believe D.C. is getting there?
“Yes, we’re definitely making progress.”