Food is fashionable. From blogs to news reports, it is common to hear words like “farm to table”, “locally sourced,” “free-range, free-trade, cage-free,” in reference to the food we choose to eat. Food truly can be an art form for those with the means, and the luck, to be able to handpick their meals. But there is a large majority of the population who associate “hungry,” and “not enough,” when it comes to food.

And many of them are right here in Omaha.

In a 2008-2012 census data report, Douglas County had a population of nearly 540,000 people, with 14% of those living below the poverty line. Comparatively, Nebraska as a whole reported 12.4% individuals living below the poverty line.

Poverty and hunger go hand in hand, with many of our city’s poor living in neighborhoods without easy access to grocery stores; these neighborhoods are known as “food deserts.” Faced with a limited income, processed and fast food becomes the cheapest way to feed their families.

Help for the hungry

Omaha has many food pantries and empowerment organizations that are working to help families overcome obstacles. A few have even partnered up to help maximize resources to reach as many people as possible.

“The Hunger Collaborative represents our three largest food pantries (Together, Heart Ministry Center, and Heartland Hope Mission) joining hands with the Food Bank for the Heartland,” said Craig Howell, coordinator of the Hunger Collaborative. “We are truly working to change the face of the modern food pantry.”

“We provide three choice pantries in north Omaha, midtown and South Omaha along 24th Street. These pantries work with the Food Bank to provide a variety of foods. They also enjoy services from local farms and food rescue operations. Our clients today have a good variety of fresh vegetables and meats.”  

More than food

Another way the Hunger Collaborative is helping to improve the quality of life for people in need is by providing services beyond food. “There are services for clothing, medical care, dental care, financial literacy, rental assistance, veteran housing and women empowerment.”

Together is a homeless prevention organization that works to empower people by providing necessary help and services to keep people from ending up on the street. One of these services is how to choose nutritious food. “Families get the opportunity to shop through a pantry that resembles a neighborhood grocery store,” said Together executive director Mike Hornacek. “Our new facility has provided those in need with a warm and welcoming environment filled with dignity.”

Creating an environment where an individual is in control of their food purchases is empowering. Many shelters like Together are moving away from the typical brown bag of canned goods and instead focusing on giving people choices.

“Each family, based on size, gets an item count and can shop for any items they wish up to that item count. In other words, a pantry’s mission is supposed to be a support mechanism for the family to help bridge the gap when finances get tough.”

“If we decide what each family needs, in the end we actually waste food because they are receiving food that is unwanted or unneeded. The grocery style pantry gives choice to the family, makes the food go further, and gives them ownership over their food choices.”

Learning what to eat

Teaching people skills like buying healthy food is important for long term results. Realizing the importance of sustainability, Together has broken the mold of traditional pantries and has even begun using their own produce to bulk the nutrition load for their shelves.

“Historically, our focus has been so centered on meeting the need and keeping the shelves stocked that there hasn’t been time to focus on nutrition levels and balanced diets. However, with recent community efforts and partnerships we are making a strong commitment to changing the balance of the food you find at a pantry,” said Hornacek. “We are currently working to create a farm-to-food pantry initiative as well as have planted our own raised bed garden to inject more produce, dairy, and protein as options for families to choose from.”

“Our goal is to have healthier options available to the families utilizing our pantry at an increased level moving forward.”

Learning how to cook

Together also offers classes to help families learn about the importance and ease of cooking meals at home. “One thing we have offered to help with nutrition is cooking demonstrations in the pantry just like at a grocery store. So when you happen to be here for pantry you may have the opportunity to see items from the pantry being prepared in front of you for nutritious meal ideas. Thanks to the VNA Cooking Matters program for this opportunity.”

A huge impact

A basic human right, food means survival. Food can impact how kids pay attention in class, how we perform at work, and how our energy can carry us through another day. Interwoven through every aspect of our lives, helping improve food access to all people is critical for the overall health of a community.

Omaha is on the right track, but we still have a long way to go. “The fight to end hunger and poverty takes more than just one group,” said Howell. “It takes substantive and serious collaboration of not only food, but also non-food services that help provide hope and lift people out of poverty.”

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