Thousands of people turn to local pantries when they need help. But right now, pantry managers say their biggest challenge is providing healthy foods to clients.

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GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- This week WZZM 13 has worked to shine a light on food insecurity in West Michigan. It's part of an effort by WZZM 13's parent company, Gannett, General Mills and "Feeding America" to "Outnumber Hunger."

Thousands of people turn to local pantries when they need help. But right now, pantry managers say their biggest challenge is providing healthy foods to clients. That's because most of the donations they get are canned or boxed and highly processed. In fact, many of those foods are linked to chronic health problems.

"," said Eleanor Moreno, Director of Client Service for South End Community Outreach Ministries. "Lately my goal is looking at how can we make things we are offering to clients healthier."

Rosa Moreta and her 91-year-old mother, Flor Cuello are among those clients. Moreta visited the pantry this week to help her mom pick out groceries for the next few days. Moreta, a 54-year old home health aid, says she also visits the pantry when she gets short on money and low on food.

"Nobody knows about it but there are a lot of people suffering... hungry. So this pantry in this community is a blessing," she said.

The two women are among the 21,000 clients who use the Access Food Pantry Network every month. SECOM is one of 75 pantries that belongs to the network, which is managed by Access of West Michigan.

"Even if we are not aware of it there are people with full time jobs in our pantries," said Emma Rosauer, hunger response director for Access. "In our community we have a lot of resources and we are very generous and giving. But, we have to go deeper and say 'how is our helping actually hindering or causing the problem?' That is a hard question to ask but it is something we have to look at when we talk about food insecurity."

Rosauer says health and food insecurity are always tied together. She believes you can't address hunger without addressing nutrition. SECOM is addressing the issue by growing things like herbs and fresh fruits and veggies in the pantry garden. Moreno encourages community partners and donors to grow extra and bring it in.

"In the next couple of months we are partnering with Parks and Rec. and they are going to give us 10 fruit trees," she said.

However, part of the struggle is to educate pantry clients to pick produce over processed.

"They need to want to take healthy food otherwise we will stock our pantries with nutritious foods that never leave the shelves," said Rosauer.

SECOM is among the few pantries that have walk-in coolers and refrigeration space. The pantry is able to store things like eggs, juice, milk and cheese. Those are the type of fresh foods and dairy pantry operators would like to see donated more often. However, pantries need that growth to happen in "baby steps."

"If there was a giant influx of refrigerated product tomorrow, most of the pantries would not be able to handle that," said Rosauer. "If farmers start to come in with tons and tons of produce, we need to get the messaging out we need more refrigeration. We need help to store this. We need to look more at putting in our space refrigeration instead of dry storage space."

But it is a problem Rosauer says they hope to have soon.

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