Virginia Wilson took her time as she selected various healthy food items and placed them in her cart Wednesday.
While she wasn’t at a grocery store, it sure felt like it.
“It’s a nice feeling,” Wilson said.
Thanks to Hope Station’s healthy choice food pantry, Wilson and other clients can be assured that the foods they eat are healthful and consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate nutritional guidelines.
The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina recently designated Hope Station as a Gold-Level Healthy Pantry.
“That’s the highest accreditation you can get,” said the Rev. Linda Walling, Hope Station’s executive director.
To get that designation, pantries must support clients’ health and well-being through food offerings and educational opportunities. Pantries like the Hope Station’s also have to meet and maintain specific criteria to keep the designation.
“We are trying to encourage people who struggle with food security to make healthier choices so that being healthy is an option no matter what your socioeconomic level,” Walling said.
‘WE WERE PIONEERS’
Hope Station launched its healthy choice pantry in 2016 after operating a traditional pantry for nearly three decades. The agency’s conversion was the result of months of research and reflection by Hope Station’s volunteers and staff, coupled with generous contributions from community partners to make the transformation possible, Walling said. The Healthcare Foundation of Wilson has also been instrumental in supporting the program.
“We were pioneers in the area of healthy pantries in eastern North Carolina,” Walling said.
Officials say food insecurity is a factor in chronic health diseases including diabetes and high blood pressure. At least 20% of Wilson County’s population still struggles with food insecurity.
“Providing food is a Band-Aid, but providing healthy food can help support people in their effort to achieve self-sufficiency and a better quality of life,” Walling said.
‘HAVING HEALTHY CHOICES SAVES PEOPLE’S LIVES’
Wednesday was the first time community member Donnie Coley had volunteered for Hope Station’s food pantry. He said he was blown away at the setup.
“It’s like a small grocery store,” he said. “You can get healthy food — fruits and vegetables. You can’t beat it.”
Bonnie Wood, Hope Station’s food pantry manager, said the healthy choice food pantry has been a lifesaver in so many ways for the agency’s clients. With Hope Station, clients have more access to healthy foods, she said.
“Having healthy choices saves people’s lives,” Wood said.
The juxtaposition of high food insecurity rates and obesity is something community leaders have worked to educate the public about.
“Poverty limits your choices,” Wood said. Low-income persons who have limited resources many times opt to buy processed foods because they are much cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. And junk food can make a person’s stomach feel full but has no nutritional value.
“If your resources are that limited, you’re going to stick with what you know,” Wood said. “It’s a risk to spend money on something you don’t know. And people don’t want to take that risk.”
That’s why Hope Station’s healthy choice pantry is a vital resource. Wood said clients are able to access more fruit, vegetables, lean meats and other healthy items that are often expensive.
And that in return expands clients’ food vocabulary because Hope Station gives them more choices.
On average, Hope Station’s healthy choice pantry serves more than 1,000 individuals per month; 35% are children under age 18, Walling said.
ANOTHER STEP TOWARD HEALTH
Hope Station provides another healthy eating program on Tuesdays which is more intensive. Results have been positive.
“The people who have participated in the intensive healthy food program have begun to control some of their chronic health conditions with diet rather than medication,” Walling said.
Participants have reduced their blood pressure and blood sugar levels as well as lost weight through nutritional consultation with help from staff and volunteers. During those consultations, risk factors have been identified, too. Hope Station has then provided funds to help participants see medical providers.
“We have discovered health conditions that people themselves did not even know,” Walling said.