The Inquirer Health section features Brian's innovative anti-hunger program

gralnickinquirerpantry.jpgThe commandments for a healthy diet are practically biblical at this point.

More fruits and vegetables. Fewer saturated fats and empty carbs.

Like most good habits, though, the canon is easier preached than practiced. And of course, it is exponentially harder to pull off when you are poor.

Recognizing that it is human nature to opt for the carrot over the stick, a food pantry in Northeast Philadelphia has adopted an innovative system to encourage better food choices.

Through a point system, the clients who go to the Mitzvah Food Project's Choice Food Program at the Klein Jewish Community Center are offered incentives to select fresh produce and whole grains rather than processed foods.

"I'm definitely healthier now than when I first walked in the door," said Arlene McNeil.

McNeil, 55, a nurse, was well aware that she should be eating more almonds and broccoli than hot dogs and cookies. But good nutrition can be costly.

Recently widowed and unemployed, she struggled on a limited budget to care for her disabled son, 30, and support her daughter, 20, and 4-year-old grandson.

"I was doing a lot of packaged rice and beans," McNeil said. Carbohydrates, cheap, quick, and filling, dominated her family's dinner table in Northeast Philadelphia.

Soon after she started receiving help from the Mitzvah pantry, which launched its point program in June, her health improved.

"I've lost 43 pounds in the last six months," she said, "and my diabetes is under better control."

The pantry allots roughly 30 points per month to each person, the equivalent of about 19 pounds of food. Each grocery item has a numerical value. A bag of plums costs only 1 point, whereas a box of Kraft mac and cheese costs 3.

The staff schedules clients in groups of 20 at hour-long intervals. They arrive early in the buttery gold waiting room for their turn at one of four computers where they can order their groceries.

About half of the 500 or so families who use the pantry each month are Russian Jewish immigrants, said Brian Gralnick, director of the Center for Social Responsibility at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which operates the Mitzvah Food Project. And many of the clients, unfamiliar with computers, had trouble with the touch-screen system in the beginning.

"The first time, a lot of volunteers helped us. Now, it's much better," said Michael Padva, 55, a retired IRS worker who immigrated from his native Ukraine 20 years ago.

With a black knit watch cap pulled low, Padva hunched over the keyboard and leaned in close to the screen. "You're doing great!" said volunteer Judy Klass, watching him click off his choices from an illustrated menu. "There's your sardines. You've used all your fruits and vegetables."

Padva had chosen potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, apples, bananas, and a rare item - beets (for borscht)!

Padva pointed to a picture of challah.

"No challah," Klass said. "Today we have kosher white bread, regular white bread, and some rolls."

With two points left, Padva chose some V-8.

"Push 'enter,' " Klass instructed. "That's it!

For low-income families who do not have much choice in their lives, systems like this are a blessing, said Marlo DelSordo, spokeswoman for Philabundance, the region's largest food bank.

"It almost replicates the experience of shopping, which studies show promotes self-sufficiency and dignity," she said.

Accordingly, food pantries across the country are adopting choice systems, said Ross Fraser of Feeding America, the national organization of food banks, adding that numerous programs encourage food-stamp recipients to make healthy choices.

Few pantries, however, offer a point system like the one at Klein, Fraser said. "It is a fairly uncommon way of functioning."

The idea makes sense, said Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, at the University of Pennsylvania. "People respond very powerfully to micro-incentives."

But most food pantries, which are serving ever larger populations on ever leaner budgets, cannot afford the necessary staff, the refrigeration, the computer system, and technical support.

As word has spread about the pantry at Klein, the staff has noticed a steady increase in clients. That number is expected to grow even more in the coming weeks. The national Supplemental Nutrition Food Assistance Program was cut Nov. 1 when temporary funding from the 2009 stimulus bill expired. The loss in benefits will total about $5 billion this year.

Clients like McNeil and Padva, who already had a taste for healthy foods, do not need encouragement to make good choices.

Others, though, especially teenagers raised on fast food, will need time to adapt to dinners of lean chicken, sauteed green peppers, and brown rice.

"We don't expect them to change overnight," Gralnick said. "It's baby steps."


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