Page One

Feeding Junk Food to the Poor

By Shana White Pacific News Service
Friday December 26, 2003

SAN JOSE—Every holiday season, people are told to donate canned food or money to the local food bank to feed our community. I always assumed the food being donated was healthy. I was wrong.  

Now, perhaps more than ever, it seems like there are a lot of young people in the South Bay Area who don’t have the money to eat a decent meal. Food banks help by giving food to “low-income” families or organizations. But not all food is good food. If donated food is unhealthy, it isn’t helping the problem of hunger—it’s making it worse.  

Recently, I tried to get some food for people I know who could use the help. I went with my cousin to a local food bank to get essentials like bread, cereal and eggs. 

The food bank was located in a warehouse in back of an office building. Very unnoticeable. When we got inside, I looked around and saw packaged food everywhere. Everything from macaroni and cheese to frozen packed soups; there was also fruit, milk, ice cream and 50-pound bags of potatoes and onions. More food than you can imagine, stacked on metal shelves. In the back of the warehouse, some older white people were busy putting food in boxes. 

We signed in to get carts, which were just like the ones they use in Home Depot to pull lumber. We were given a list of things that we could get. The things we weren’t allowed to get were U.S. Department of Agriculture food items. These were the canned juices, meat and much of the produce, which were reserved for organizations that had been approved by the food bank—mainly homeless shelters and senior centers. 

The problem is that a lot of young people who need good food aren’t at homeless shelters. A lot of them are like myself, people who are working, but all their money goes to rent and bills.  

I have friends, family and even colleagues who are in the same position as me. Some of them have kids and, after paying rent, car notes and credit card bills, must try to save enough money to buy groceries. Sometimes when that money gets spent, they are stuck eating Top Ramen noodle soup or greasy lunchmeat for a week. Or they end up eating food that is quickly made, cheap and quick to eat like fried chicken wings or lunch truck burritos. They find themselves gaining weight even though they are busting sweat at work. The kinds of people who usually do this are around 20-25 years old, low-income, working-class people who are living from check to check.  

In the aisles of the food bank, there were some boxes we called “mystery boxes” because inside of them was a variety of food that was donated from random people. That’s what we were allowed to get, and we must have hauled back 20 of those boxes.  

We went from aisle to aisle getting things like cookies, pasta, crates of candy, crackers and spices. Basically, what people threw out when they were cleaning out their kitchen shelves. There was some healthy food, but it wasn’t anything people would want: near-spoiled pineapples, for example, or cheese that didn’t taste good. You know, the kind of cheese that if you put it in between two slices of bread and meat you would still spit out. By the end of the day, we had so much food. Luckily we had two trucks to haul it.  

I gave out all the food to young people who were providing for themselves and their families. We went back a couple of more times, but we soon realized we were coming back with more junk food than healthy food. It made me wonder: Why are we getting so many sweets? It wasn’t that we were just picking it, it was just that the healthy food wasn’t reserved for us. We were choosing between the Baby Ruths or the spoiled pineapples.  

I understand that you have to accept what you have been offered. But if the food you are eating is putting your health at risk for things like obesity or tooth decay, then accepting that food is not worth it. Even people with good intentions can sometimes bring on contradictions and not know it. When I serve hungry people food, even if they are broke, I don’t want their free breakfast to be a Butterfinger and a can of soda. 

Shana White, 23, is a writer with Silicon Valley De-Bug, a PNS publication by young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley, and Youth Outlook, a PNS publication for Bay Area youth.