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Worker says WNY food bank is really a ‘nutrition bank’

The shelves, coolers and freezer at the Food Bank of Western New York look different these days than a decade ago, particularly when it comes to content.

Spinach and beans, cranberry and tomato sauces, frozen produce and lean meats are among the products that flow in and out of the Holt Street warehouse in greater abundance. Fruits and vegetables also made up half the 1.6 million pounds of food last year trucked out on the nonprofit’s refrigerated Mobile Food Pantry. And the food pantry has hired three workers as part of a statewide Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables program.

“There’s been a push toward trying to be more a nutrition bank than a food bank,” said Elyse Burgher, the full-time Say Yes nutritionist who works with part-timers Danyel Brewer and Ashley Cottrell. The trio visits dozens of food pantries, emergency shelters and transitional housing each year across Erie, Niagara, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.

Government programs, farmers, grocers and food manufacturers, and corporate and individual donors fuel the Food Bank. The need is great. Food Bank-assisted churches, community centers and the Mobile Food Pantry provided more than 12 million meals last year to 165,000 people in the counties it serves. This helps explain why supporters will host Walk Off Hunger and Summer Fest Saturday at Island Park in Williamsville. Registration – $25 for adults and free for children under 16 – starts at 10 a.m.; the walk begins at 11 and the festival runs till 2 p.m. For more info, visit foodbankwny.org.

Burgher, 27, an Amherst native, landed her first job five years ago at the All Faiths Food Bank in Sarasota, Fla., after receiving a bachelor’s in human development and family studies at Penn State University. She started work at the Food Bank of WNY about two years ago, after landing a master’s of public health degree from the University at Buffalo.

Q. Describe your job.

I will go in before a pantry distribution starts. There may be clients waiting in the lobby or their cars for the pantry to open. I set up a table and I’ll talk about a different nutrition topic. That can range from the importance of eating fruits and vegetables every day to getting enough fiber, meal planning and resource management – spending your SNAP dollars effectively. Or physical activity or sugar-sweetened beverages. There’s 12 different lesson plans. The first portion is the nutrition lesson and the second half is the cooking demonstration. I’ll bring food items with me that are typically found in a food pantry and make something nutritious and delicious out of them. It might be foods not traditionally taken by the clients, whether it’s whole wheat pasta or black beans, or something really nutritious. The cooking demonstration gives them an opportunity to see how something is prepared. They’re also able to try the recipe and realize maybe they do like something that’s helpful for them.

Most of the people that I see are in working families who have to decide between turning their heat on in the winter and buying food for their families, or seniors who have to choose between filling their prescription or getting what they need to eat. There’s a lot of children as well. So it’s devastating to see hunger in the community where we grew up.

Q. So you coordinate with the pantries on the lessons?

The Food Bank has great relationships with all our member agencies. We have open communication with all of them. I put together a monthly schedule and call up coordinators from the agencies we see. … I get calls and they’ll say something like, “Hey Elyse, we got a really big donation of cabbage and nobody’s taking it. Can you come and do a cooking demonstration?”

Q. What is the reaction from people who come to these cooking demonstrations?

I’ve had people tell me, “I never would have taken this item if it wasn’t for me trying this today.” … I always provide little gifts at the end of my workshops, as well. Those are usually cooking tools like spatulas or measuring spoons or cutting boards, coupon organizers or salad containers. We’re down at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market, too, every Saturday. Keep an eye out for the banner that says, “Come see what’s cookin.”

Q. What are the biggest misconceptions you look to overcome?

If I want to eat healthy, it’s going to be expensive. I hear that from people all the time. It’s definitely possible to stay on a budget and eat healthy. There are a lot of opportunities to shop at farmers markets, and making sure you make food at home instead of ordering a pizza or heading to your local fast-food restaurant. Cooking at home is one of the most important things people can do to save money and make sure you’re eating healthy.

Q. What are the biggest concerns?

I don’t know how to cook. Once they see me and what I do, it turns from “I don’t cook stuff like that” to “That wasn’t that hard. I could probably do that.”

email: refresh@buffnews.com

On the Web: Read Elyse Burgher’s Just Say Yes recipes and see her workshop schedule at jsyfruitveggies.org.

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