Valley food banks offer healthier and customized options

PHOENIX – For someone like Marsha Burton, who is diabetic, has high blood pressure and relies on food banks to help her put food on the table, affording certain types of foods that help her manage her medical condition can be difficult.

Food banks in the Valley have been making their donation boxes more health conscious by including more fruits, vegetables and even foods specific for dietary restrictions.

Burton’s health conditions prevented her from consuming most of what she would pick up at a food bank.

“Unfortunately, at least a good 70 to 80 percent of boxes you get, you cannot eat,” Burton said. “You’re getting maybe four or five items you can actually eat.”

That was the case until she stopped by The Cultural Cup Food Bank in Phoenix, where it customizes food boxes based on one’s medical or religious dietary restrictions. For Burton, this means having access to foods that are low in sodium and won’t raise her blood pressure.

Burton communicates with the staff at the Cultural Cup, a partner of St. Mary’s Food Bank, about her dietary needs and restrictions, and she’s able to go home with a box full of items her body can tolerate.

“With other food boxes, you’re reading everything,” Burton said. “And if there’s something in there that you can’t have, it’s garbage to you.”

Sabiha Keskin, the executive director at the Cultural Cup, said they strive to provide food to 2,000 to 3,000 low income and homeless families per month.

Other food banks are making the push toward healthier options as well. St. Mary’s Food Bank distributes more than 70 million pounds of food per year in Arizona, said Jerry Brown, a spokesman for St. Mary’s in Phoenix.

“It’s not just that canned food box anymore that the food bank distributes,” Brown said.

People who stop by St. Mary’s are leaving with items like squashes, organic lettuce and strawberries.

St. Mary’s is giving away more fruits and vegetables than ever, making up almost a third of all food distributed, Brown said.

These initiatives allow people to still enjoy balanced diets, even if they rely on food banks. Arizona’s hunger rates are higher than national averages: Nearly 17.8 percent of residents say they’re food insecure compared to nearly 16 percent nationally, according to St. Mary’s Food Bank.

“At least it gives them a little bit of hope that they can get out of whatever problem they’re having,” Keskin said.

For Burton, her monthly food box means she won’t go hungry or eat foods she shouldn’t.

“My doctor will be very pleased with my blood levels and my results – for a change,” Burton said.