For too many Americans, Thanksgiving dinner doesn't mean a big, juicy bird sitting triumphantly in the middle of a well-appointed, crowded family table. Instead, it means going to the local church, shelter or food bank to accept a bag of free food.
During the last few years, thanks to the efforts of two professors from Los Angeles, the contents of those bags have changed dramatically, not just at Thanksgiving but all year long. Soup-kitchen meals also look different than they used to. While charitable food once meant cans and packages, now it includes glistening fresh fruit and nutritious, just-picked vegetables.
Susan H. Evans and Peter Clarke, faculty members in preventive medicine at USC, launched a project in 1991 called From the Wholesaler to the Hungry, which has helped charitable food agencies in 54 cities nationwide to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables. Programs in an additional 15 cities are in development.
Last year alone, Evans and Clarke helped bring 170 million pounds of free fruits and vegetables to low-income people around the country. That's 5,000 trailer loads of oranges, bananas, squash, green beans and more. Because the food is donated by produce wholesalers, who buy internationally, a varied supply of fruits and vegetables arrives all year long.
"Hunger doesn't just come on the holidays," Evans said.
More than 20,000 agencies--from church pantries to juvenile shelters, senior centers to AIDS hospices--receive produce through the program.
Evans and Clarke learned about distributing fresh produce from the late Mickey Weiss, a produce wholesaler who started a program in L.A. to reclaim surplus produce for charitable distribution. (The program is now operated by a group called World Opportunities.) They were intrigued by the concept of transplanting this concept around the country.
"When I saw Mickey's program, I thought it was the largest public health intervention I'd ever seen in my life," Evans said.
One of their goals is to help charitable food organizations reframe their mission from hunger relief alone to the prevention of malnutrition and disease.
"The issue isn't just hunger. It's poor nutrition," said Clarke, who regards good health as "the prerequisite for anyone getting back on their feet."
Evans and Clarke have focused their careers on mobilizing communities toward better health. Clarke, 61, teaches at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and School of Medicine and directs their joint Center for Health and Medical Communications. With his own childhood spent on a Midwestern farm without running water or electricity, "the needs of the people we help aren't foreign to me," he said.
In addition to leading the produce program, Evans, 46, runs a nationwide study that is testing a home-based curriculum on living wills and other end-of-life planning. She is also president of the board of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Diabetes Assn. She and Clarke have written the forthcoming book "Surviving Modern Medicine" (Rutgers), which aims to help people communicate with their doctors, caregivers and family about health matters.
"If Susan brings a special gift to the produce work," said Jane Morrell, executive director of Annapolis' Food Link, "it's that she'll talk to anyone--the mayor, county commissioners, wholesalers on the dock, volunteer cooks, kids picking up fruit. She can move from medical research to welfare mothers in one fell swoop."
Evans explained that low-income people, who often don't get regular medical checkups, can manage or even prevent common conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension simply by consuming fresh produce--but that fruits and vegetables cost an average of 12% to 18% more in many poor areas.
It seems that food banks would have embraced produce distribution systems long ago if fruits and vegetables weren't so perishable. Running on shoestring budgets, many food banks lack sufficient refrigeration, so it's easier for them to distribute packaged or canned foods.
To deal with perishables, food programs have to be capable of receiving, refrigerating and distributing such items. Before that, merchants have to be persuaded to make such high-quality donations. And finally, the people who receive the produce have to know how to prepare it.
Because conditions in each city are so different, transplanting the produce distribution concept from one locale to another is not a simple matter. Evans and Clarke visit each city, working with food recovery agencies, produce donors and communities to tailor the program.
Bonnie West, executive director of Community Food Rescue in Charlotte, N.C., was interested in exploring a produce program a year ago. Evans and Clarke flew in to make a presentation.
"My board just went nuts when they learned how much produce was available and how it could really help people's health," West said.