Most times, however, hunger fighters lack the luxury or money to provide healthier choices in the 500 to 900 pantries in the city and its suburbs. Healthy foods can be 30 percent to 40 percent more expensive.
That's where Green Light comes in. The pantry was created by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger based on its research showing that 70 percent of families who use food pantries here suffer from diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension.
"Healthy food is hard to find," said Julie Zaebst, the coalition's interim director. She added that 500,000 people in Philadelphia have used pantries in the last year.
Often, she said, normal pantries rely on nonperishable foods because they are easier to deliver and store. Many of these foods, though, are canned goods high in sodium or sugar.
Food provided at the Green Light Pantry are low-sodium and low-sugar items, along with lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and produce.
Clients at the pantry receive free health screenings, cooking classes, and assistance in applying for food stamps or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
The Coalition also created a Green Light pantry at Casa del Carmen, which provides social services in North Philadelphia. It has had a "soft" opening, but is not officially running yet.
The Kensington Green Light Pantry is housed in the Drueding Center, a transitional housing and support program for homeless people.
"Green light" refers to a ranking of foods based on dietary guidelines.
High-fat items such as pizza are red-light foods, to be used sparingly.
Foods such as corn and breakfast cereal are yellow-light items, to be chosen moderately.
The healthiest of foods - broccoli, apples, green beans - get green lights.
The pantry has a limited clientele, many of them from Drueding. Over time, the 50 current clients will be checked for blood pressure as well as changes in food choice to see whether healthier eating has made a difference in their lives, said Tanya Thampi Sen, nutrition program manager with the coalition.
The Green Light Pantry is funded by the coalition, along with Stroehmann Bakeries, Citizens Bank, and the Pincus Fund for Hunger Relief, a group of local philanthropists. Project SHARE, which also provides food to local pantries, helped the pantry negotiate food prices.
At present, it is too expensive for all pantries to adapt the green-light model. "But," Zaebst said, "we'll start small and learn how to apply the system more broadly,"
Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or email@example.com.