This is the time of year when donations to food banks spike. But, some food banks are getting pickier about what they'll accept.
Earlier this year the Capital Area Food Bank announced it would "dramatically" cut back on junk food it receives and distributes. This means saying "no" to donations such as sheet cakes, holiday candy, sugary sodas and other processed, bakery items.
"Our core business — in helping those most in need — needs to be not only getting people food, but getting them the right food," says Nancy Roman, the CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank.
Roman says about half of the people that the CAFB serves have high blood pressure or other cardiovascular conditions, and about one in four clients have diabetes in their households. Given the epidemic of lifestyle and diet-related diseases, "we have a moral obligation to get our act together," Roman says.
Other food pantries are following a similar strategy. At the Share food pantry in McLean, Virginia, there's an effort to limit how many donations of sugary calories it accepts from donors such as supermarkets and restaurants.
"We've gotten calls from grocery stores saying, we have one-hundred cupcakes or sheet cakes, will you take them?" Therese Dyer-Caplan of Share told us. "The answer is no."
Share accepts pies during the holidays, since families enjoy a treat. Dyer-Caplan says she also accepts breads and a limited number of baked goods, but she tries to shift the overall balance towards healthier items.
So, where does Share find the kind of donations they're looking for? It turns out, the elementary school across the street has become a key partner, giving the food pantry about a hundred pounds of foods each week.
The donations are unopened leftovers from the cafeteria that would otherwise be tossed out. "Everything from cheese sticks, yogurts, and milks," gets donated says David Duggal, a 6th grader at Franklin Sherman Elementary. There's also hummus and fresh fruit, including apples and bananas. "It's a lot of food!"
"It's a win-win," says Josh DeSmyter, Assistant Principal at the school. He says the food no longer goes to waste, and the students learn the value of helping others.
Student Nicola Hopper says he thinks this is a big improvement. He says he felt guilty before they started donating their leftovers. "All of it just got wasted."
There are lots of reasons kids don't eat everything on their trays. They either pack too much, don't like what the cafeteria is serving, or they don't have time to eat everything.
The idea to recover unused food from elementary schools is the brainchild of a mom in this school district. When she visited her kids' own school several years ago, she was shocked by how much food was wasted.
"It was a mountain of food and it had to be tossed out. That was the regulation," says Kathleen Dietrich, founder of Food Bus. For food safety reasons, Dietrich explains, most school cafeterias don't allow food that's been purchased to be returned to the line. This means, in most cases, once a food is on a student's tray, it must be eaten or tossed.
At Franklin Sherman elementary alone, there's more than 3,000 pounds of food that is now salvaged during the school year. And when you consider that there's thousands of schools around the country, many of which are also tossing away food, "It's a lot of waste," Dietrich says.
Dietrich was determined to help solve the problem. She arranged to have the students start collecting their unopened leftovers instead of throwing them away. She also arranged to purchase extra refrigerators to store the perishable items. Once a week the students haul all the food they've collected over to the food pantry to be distributed.
At the Share food pantry, Therese Dyer-Caplan says the donations from the students are a godsend. "We're so grateful, and our clients are so grateful."
The model is spreading. Dietrich started the program in her own children's school. Now, it's up and running in more more than 40 schools across the country.
Dietrich has developed a toolkit to help schools get started. Each school must have refrigerators to store the food, and they need to find a local food pantry that can accept the donations.
Nancy Roman, at the CAFB, says she's thrilled to see more organizations popping up around the country that are focused on recovering nutritious food that would otherwise go to waste. Food Bus's mission fits nicely with the goal of the food pantry community - which is to provide healthier food. "Everybody understands we need to eat better," Roman says. And the foods that Food Bus schools are distributing - everything from fruit to cheese -to hummus -are exactly what many food banks are looking for.
"I'll take hummus over sheet cake any day," Roman says.