ESU Grad Students Assess Needs of Food Pantries and Their Clients

Posted by: Elizabeth Richardson on April 10, 2019, No Comments

When Clare Lenhart, Ph.D., associate professor of public health at East Stroudsburg University, sat down with graduate assistant Ivan Mendoza, of Sheffield Village, Ohio, to crunch the numbers from a needs assessment of community food pantries, they found some scary statistics.

About 65 percent of the pantry clients surveyed had at least one of four diet-related chronic illnesses: diabetes, hypertension, heart disease or obesity. Almost 10 percent had all four.

They also found that only about a third of the food given out at local food banks are considered “foods to encourage” by health standards.

Those revelations could help the Pocono Mountain Hunger Coalition find funding to enable area food pantries to offer healthier food to their low-income clients.

So says Jennifer Strauch, who directed the Pleasant Valley Ecumenical Network food pantry for 2½ years and sits on the Hunger Coalition Steering Committee.

“Data drives funding,” says Strauch, who is now grants manager for Monroe County. “That’s why it was so important for me to work with Dr. Lenhart and her public health students. If we can show that there’s a need, we can target programs that are effective and efficient and we can hopefully increase the amount of funding that is coming into our community to address the problem.”

Providing healthier food for those who visit the food pantries can save communities money in the long run by cutting down on health care costs.

“If we can prevent a low-income diabetic patient from entering the ER because our food pantry system is doing a better job providing healthier food for longer periods of time…it’s a win-win,” Strauch says.

Strauch, who has a master’s degree in public health from ESU, says the university has been key to the Hunger Coalition work, providing research, resources, student volunteers and interns. That includes a previous graduate assistant, Sydney Huerbin, who was instrumental in working with Lenhart to launch the research project and graduated with her master’s in public health last year.

“They are a big part of the Hunger Coalition’s success to date,” Strauch says. “We could not have done it without them.”

ESU graduate students surveyed about 200 food pantry clients on their health, including diet-related illnesses, and also asked them what they would like to see more of, such as nutrition education and demonstrations on healthy cooking. Those students, led by Mendoza, also surveyed food pantry directors in Monroe and Pike counties to find their challenges in helping clients.

Six Monroe and seven Pike food pantries get most of their supplies from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania.

“Many of the food pantries up here are small and they don’t have a lot of refrigerator or freezer space,” Lenhart says. “So even if they got surplus produce from Second Harvest, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to store it until it was time to distribute it.”

But even with such limitations, making small changes to food donations, such as providing peaches canned in juice instead of syrup, can help clients with dietary-related diseases, Lenhart says.

“I think there is considerable opportunity to improve food quality in our pantry system locally,” Lenhart says. “There are a lot of opportunities to use the pantries as a service-oriented site because we now know the recipients have significant health needs. Setting up diabetes screenings or blood pressure checks, and providing health conscious meal options in those settings, would be really appropriate.”

Despite the strong economy, food pantries are seeing an increase in need, in part because of inflation, Strauch says. The SNAP program, formally known as food stamps, has not kept up with rising prices.

At a meeting of food pantry directors in late March, Mendoza presented the results of the ESU assessment and included examples of what pantries around the nation do to help clients.

Mendoza, who is a wrestler, says he has seen first-hand how eating healthy improves his performance on the mat but also in the classroom. He’s working toward his master’s degree in public health because he wants to empower people to make healthier lifestyle decisions.

“The more I practice it, the more I preach it, the more I want to study it,” he says.

In researching the best practices of food pantries around the country, he was able to make recommendations that make sense for rural areas where transportation can be an obstacle for low-income people.

“Something that can be done in New York City cannot necessarily be done in Monroe and Pike counties,” Mendoza says.

Lenhart said Mendoza did a great job on the presentation, inspiring pantry directors to take notes on his findings even after a long day of meetings.

“He’s very motivated,” Lenhart says. “He really takes initiative. He’s able to take guidance, then run with it and get it done and bring back a product very efficiently.”