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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michel Norris.

A slow economy has forced food pantries and soup kitchens into high gear, with nearly 50 percent more people depending on them since 2006. While food banks struggle to meet demand, theyre also pushing themselves to focus not just on how many people they can feed, but on what they can feed them.

From member stations WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer reports.

BLAKE FARMER: Junk food is becoming like the unwanted houseguest food banks just can't say no to.

Now, one of the baskets here that's sitting in front of us is full on candy corns.

Ms. TASHA KENNARD (Second Harvest Food Bank, Tennessee): Correct.

FARMER: What are you going to do with those?

Ms. KENNARD: We do not turn away those types of items. So if we receive candy or sodas of any type, we do sort them and we make them available to our agencies.

FARMER: Tasha Kennard from Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee explains the open arms policy as volunteers in the warehouse separate canned corn from the candy corn.

G.B. Howell is on soft drink duty.

Mr. G.B. HOWELL (Second Harvest Volunteer): I happen to be packing sodas right now, so I just named - scavenged those out.

FARMER: Along with all the staple items, boxes of generic soda make their way to soup kitchens and emergency food pantries, like this one at Nashville's Ladies of Charity.

Ms. MARION FORD: Oh, this is a heavy one.

FARMER: Marion Ford grabs two grocery bags filled with eggs and milk, plus a few treats. Ford is a good example of why food banks are getting concerned about nutrition.

Ms. FORD: Five grandchildren Im raising at home - me, myself and my husband. He's diabetic and has a heart condition, but I have problems myself. I have diabetes. I have blood pressure. But I still go on.

Dr. MARY FLYNN (Nutritionist, Brown University): The rate of obesity is so much higher in the low-income population because of the hunger/obesity paradox.

FARMER: High-calorie, low-nutrition foods tend to be relatively inexpensive, says Dr. Mary Flynn, a nutritionist at Brown University. So it's not unusual for hungry people to also be overweight.

Flynn says food banks do no favors dishing out the same cheap fare available at a corner store, particularly soft drinks. But even as a board member of a food bank in Rhode Island, she can't get the organization to completely refuse soda.

Dr. FLYNN: I was told that, well, we give it out because if we don't take it, we won't get other food from people when they're distributing it.

FARMER: Much of the junk food comes from grocery stores, which donate old or damaged products. But food bank leaders like Jaynee Day are reluctant to get picky with their biggest donors because they get good stuff from retailers, too, like chicken and ground beef.

Ms. JAYNEE DAY (Second Harvest Food Bank): Now, does that come with also some nonperishable food items that probably aren't on the top of our list? Sometimes that does occur.

FARMER: Food banks still acknowledge the responsibility to watch what their clients are eating. Feeding America, a national umbrella group, has set a five-year goal to get 75 percent of what's distributed classified as nutritious.

To make up for the sweets and soda they have trouble saying no to, many food banks are loading up on things like fresh produce - even if it means more work.

Unidentified Woman: As long as it's not squishy it's okay.

FARMER: Volunteers in Nashville pick through 50 pallets of butternut squash donated by a local farmer. They have to move fast before mold starts to set in. Nutritious eating can cost more, too. Triada Stampas with the Food Bank for New York City says her organization has started buying low-sodium canned beans.

Ms. TRIADA STAMPAS (Food Bank for New York City): Our advisory committee said, you know, well, if its within a 10 percent margin in price, we would prefer the healthier, low-sodium goods.

FARMER: Healthful eating is often a choice of quality over quantity. And since food banking is a volume business, any decision that results in less instead of more takes nerve, especially when the need is so great.

Stampas says half of the food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City had to turn away people last year for lack of food.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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