For more than two years, members of MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security have held hopes of tackling the state’s food insecurity issues in pantries.
Thanks to a five-year, $500,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health last month, these IFCS members can now place their Food Pantry Nutrition Project into action.
“Our basic motivation is to help food pantries and the people who use pantries to access more fruits and vegetables,” project coordinator Bill McKelvey said. “This is coming out of a desire to help folks have healthier diets and improve their overall health.”
The project is a collaboration between ICFS and the School of Journalism’s Health Communication Research Center. The grant will allow the project to fund staffing and gardening for pantries in rural counties in northeast and central Missouri, McKelvey said.
“You could make the case that in rural communities resources aren’t as readily available as they are in a place like Columbia,” he said. “As you look at the data, you see there’s a great need across our state, whether it be rural or urban, but we decided to focus on rural food pantries.”
The need to improve pantries throughout the state is strong. Missouri ranks seventh in the nation for food insecurity and fifth for child food insecurity, according to a news release by the MU News Bureau.
The Missouri Food Bank Association Association provides for more than 950,000 Missouri residents per year, state director Scott Baker said. While economic factors create much of the need, Baker said that Missouri’s struggles are so large because they are so hidden.
“Missourians unite to tackle a challenge when they see it, but Missourians right now have no idea of some of those numbers,” Baker said. “… It’s in every county, it’s in every community. We have to get people aware of that and talking about that.”
Pantries currently lack the storage space for their items, many of which are not shelf-stable, Baker said. He said that pantry users can also be unsure of how to prepare the foods they receive.
ICFS members have spent the last two years researching these struggles, McKelvey said. They have found that pantry users in Missouri have higher rates of diabetes, cholesterol and hypertension than the state average.
The Food Pantry Nutrition Project will tackle these areas by implementing wellness programs into select rural pantries. These programs will consist of pantry volunteers, agency professionals and community members who will meet regularly to assess the health of the pantry’s consumers.
ICFS will start work this spring to educate community members on how to use the products as well as how to grow them in their own gardens. ICFS’s 2010 survey of pantry users in central and northeast Missouri found that 40 percent of pantry users get some of their food from a garden, McKelvey said.
“We want to be able to provide resources to people to help them make decisions on their own,” he said.
Matt Kuhlenbeck, program director for the Missouri Foundation of Health, said the foundation gives out around $42 million in grants annually. He said the foundation was particularly impressed by the long-term goals ICFS had to improve pantries in a variety of areas.
“What they’re trying to do is not just to buy food and supply food,” he said. “What they’re really focusing on is how the university can work with the food bank as well as these pantries to make the system stronger.”