Menu Planning for Charitable Food Programs

Last week, we gathered people from different food programs in Metro Vancouver to discuss some of the challenges and basic principles of menu planning for charitable food programs.

We started by articulating that our goal was to explore how the meals we provide to the vulnerable members of our community contribute to our collective flourishing. We aim for more than just healthy food consumption. We want to prepare and serve food in ways that promote growth, resilience, and social capital. We also gathered people, in part, to contribute to Vancouver’s Food Strategy, and with support from the VCH Healthy Living Programs.

The diagram above represents an emotional spectrum, from angst (far left) to delight. With a normal, healthy metabolism, we move up and down the hungry – full continuum each day. In Vancouver, few individuals find themselves starving, except in the case of exceptional illness that prevents them from accessing the community supports in place.

Many people, though, do find themselves hungry. It is challenging to meet our food needs on a limited income, and support programs are sometimes inadequate or difficult to access. When we are hungry, as most guests are when they arrive at community meals, we say or do things we would not otherwise. We also tend to eat until we are uncomfortable, which can lead to digestive and other complex health problems.

When we eat, we should aim to leave the table satisfied, not to be full or stuffed (unpleasant sensations that leave us lethargic). People living out of a survival mentality can be fearful about when the next meal will come, and thus overeat. When planning community meals, consider appropriate portion sizes and resist setting out an excess of donated bread or other simple carbohydrates, which will displace appetite for healthier foods or tempt people to consume too much.

Many people coming to charitable food programs may not have another balanced meal that day, and often have higher than average nutrient needs because they are fighting infections or catching up on deficiencies experienced due to inadequate intake. In “Nutritional assessment of charitable meal programs serving homeless people in Toronto,“ Tse & Tarasuk propose a meal-planning guide that would meet the majority of an adult’s nutrient requirements (see table 4). The authors recognize that a meal like this cannot realistically be served when relying on donated food, so offer it as a guide for advocating for funds and better quality donations.

When we work together, we can focus on raising the quality of what we are serving. We can refer guests to another program if we cannot meet their needs, and be deliberate about who and how many we can serve. We must also recognize the gaps that exist (i.e. days of the week, neighbourhoods, or sub-populations), and advocate for appropriate programs.

Menu planning is a complex challenge, but we have some good resources available to us – most notably in neighbouring food programs. If you struggle with knowing how much choice to give to guests, balanicing quality and quantity, or wonder how to meet the unique needs of those who rely on charitable food, let’s keep the discussion going.

[Note: Thanks to Lubi Mrockova for designing the faces of hunger for Planted]

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