Story by Luc Pham.
COLUMBIA — When people who are struggling financially come to the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri for help, Gail Clarkson said the first step is to speak with them about their future.
She said it’s important to make sure they are making the right choices with what they have, especially when it comes to food.
“We try to talk to them, visit with them, give them suggestions (and) possibilities of doing different things with food they might be rethinking about,” said Clarkson, the former director of the Food Bank.
While those with fewer worries about their spending might have the luxury of more food choices, nutrition is not always in the forefront of everyone’s mind, said Mike DeSantis, communications coordinator of the Food Bank. People will eat what they want to eat.
And even if they want to eat healthier, regardless of income, people don’t always have the option to do so close at hand.
A traditional grocer, Lucky’s Market, opened last year in downtown Columbia, an area that was identified in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “food desert” because it offered residents little access to fresh market foods.
MU english professor Elizabeth Chang said she shops at Lucky’s not only because it’s close to her house, but also because she likes the benefits of the store’s more organic, “relatively unprocessed” products for her family.
“I have three little kids,” she said. “Lucky’s is a huge game changer.”
The franchise, based in Boulder, Colorado, has located many of its markets in college towns, and it operates with the goal of “giving back to the community” and “supporting local vendors and local suppliers,” said Jon Heisinger, the second assistant store director at Lucky’s Market in Columbia.
“Overall, we just want to provide really good food at a good price so people can eat healthy,” he said.
He concedes that homegrown organic food can be pricey, but customers can find it easily “if they’re willing to pay a little extra.”
Jordan Fowler, the assistant produce manager at Lucky’s, agreed, “It is more expensive to buy local.”
But they both said the store’s prices are competitive with other markets.
“The dollar is always key,” Fowler said. “Generally if it’s cheaper, it will sell better.”
Yet, even as markets like Lucky’s supply urban areas with food choices that some shoppers embrace as healthier, fast-food options are prevalent.
Chang said she makes a conscious decision to avoid fast-food establishments for two reasons: she doesn’t like the taste, and she doesn’t want to feed into the corporatization that they represent.
Andrea Lang, a student at Columbia College who both works at and shops at Lucky’s, said, “Fast food is definitely cheaper, but the nutritional value of making your own food outweighs it.”
The available options at the Food Bank try to influence the choices that people in need make.
”Ninety-five percent of the food we give out is “good food,’” said DeSantis. “Only five percent of the food we give out is snacks (such as) cookies and soda.”
The need is undeniable. The Food Bank delivers about 30 million pounds of food to around 114,000 clients annually.
For nine years, Patsy Bulington was one of those clients.
Bulington, 66, of La Plata, started using the services provided by the Food Bank in 2005, when her budget was stretched after she took in three of her grandchildren.
“We couldn’t get help from the government,” said Bulington. “They told us we made too much money.”
She struggled to juggle a series of low-paying, short-term jobs, along with her children, an out-of-work husband on disability and countless financial crises primarily on her own.
By providing her with meat, vegetables and pasta, she says the Food Bank helped supply her family with healthy meals while she got back on her feet.
But even for those who need the assistance, DeSantis said the food provided is intended only to “tide them over.”
“We don’t want people dependent on our services,” he said. “We want people to get out and change their own lives.”
“We try to behave in a good Christian manner, and also encourage people, let them know that it’s going to get better,”she said.