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Consider nutrition security when donating to a food drive

Somewhere out there, a handbook has been passed down from generation to generation advising that parents instruct their kids to clean their plate. The carrot on the stick was that you got to join the clean plate club for doing so. And the ensuing guilt for not cleaning your plate came with the reminder there are starving kids in Africa.

Could there be any less logic to this household rule? How overfeeding one child compensates for the underfeeding of another (halfway around the world nonetheless), is about as nonsensical as it gets.

Not once did my parents mail those last few bites of extra food to a starving kid in Africa. In fact, they didn’t send that food to one of the estimated 6,420 food-insecure residents of La Plata County, either. Never mind the 30-year gap in time, you get the point.

Speaking of donating food, we are approaching the time of year when there is a surge in food drives. The drives aim to reduce food insecurity by increasing food availability – it’s one approach in a complex food system.

Last night, my youngest stormed to the pantry insisting on loading her backpack with nonperishable goods to take to school. The intentions were good, but I questioned if a package of ramen was the best choice for donation.

Before you rummage through your pantry or grab something off the shelf at the grocery store, might you consider a donation that provides nutrition security?

Nutrition security takes food security to the next level. While food security focuses on making calories available, nutrition security emphasizes foods (calories) that also provide nutritional value. Nutritional value refers to the balance of nutrients. Foods with a high nutritional value are a good source of vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein, with limited amounts of added sugar, saturated fat and sodium.

There is a reason food insecurity in the U.S. presents itself differently than it does in underdeveloped countries. In underdeveloped parts of the world, severe undernutrition results from of a lack of access to adequate calories and protein. It is the face of starvation.

Paradoxically, food-insecure people in the U.S. often experience obesity (along with associated complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease). As conflicting as that may seem, it’s easy to understand how food insecurity and obesity interplay when you look at the bigger picture of affordability and accessibility.

Financial resources dictate food choices. When you have limited food dollars, you strive to maximize the quantity of food that can be purchased with less. Frequently, the cheapest foods are energy dense (high calorie) and low in nutrition. In survival mode, it’s calories that make a difference.

Community build and household resources also determine the degree of accessibility to nutritious foods. Accessibility is defined by how far you have to travel to get to a grocery store selling nutritious foods. You’re in a food desert if more than 500 people or 33% of the population, with a vehicle, live more than a mile from a grocery store. This includes La Plata County, according to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas.

As you can see, food insecurity is a combination of what you can afford to buy and the choices you have access to.

One could argue that any food donation is better than nothing. But consider what a difference you make by thoughtfully opting to donate highly nutritious food. In doing so, you make the most valuable contribution. You provide calories needed for immediate survival, and you provide nutrition to promote good health. Thriving, not just surviving.

Nicole Clark is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at nicole.clark@colostate.edu or 382-6461.