Nourishing Hero: Ruthi Solari

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This is the latest installment in our Nourishing Heroes series, in which we feature the individuals and organizations who inspire us with food that nourishes body, soul and planet. Do you know a Nourishing Hero we should feature on NOURISH Evolution? Let us know who inspires you!

It’s December, prime time for food drives to feed those who won’t be fortunate enough to gather around a holiday table filled with goodies. More people than ever need that help. According to the Feeding America Hunger in America 2010 report, nearly 50 million Americans are now “food insecure,” meaning they have limited access to what the USDA defines as “nutritionally adequate foods.” An estimated 37 million rely on food from food banks, pantries, community kitchens and shelters.

Ruthi Solari, founder of SuperFood Drive in San Diego, is on a mission to feed those hungry people by revolutionizing the inventories of America’s food banks. And her efforts have a decidedly nourishing goal: She wants to replace the junk food that fills many food banks with healthy, whole foods.

Like many of us, Solari used to rummage at the back of her pantry to donate unloved items she was never planning to use anyway. That’s how food banks end up with fare like fruit canned in heavy syrup or ramen noodles with sodium-laden flavor packets. Food banks are grateful for all donations, and even of items like these will help keep a person from going hungry for another day. But, Solari notes, healthier foods will also nourish someone’s health and well-being. It’s a matter of giving as good as you’d like to get.

“Close your eyes and imagine what you’d like to find in that bag,” she says.

It all started a few years ago, when she read SuperFoods Rx by Steven G. Pratt, M.D. (Harper) as part of her training to become a certified nutritionist. The book details the health-boosting benefits of whole foods like oats, beans, nuts, berries, salmon and tomatoes. “I’ve always been really passionate about giving back to under-served populations,” Solari says. “And I thought, why not collect nonperishable versions of SuperFoods?”

“Close your eyes and imagine what you’d like to find in that donation bag.”

So she founded SuperFood Drive in 2009 as a nonprofit to stock food banks with nutrient-dense whole foods. A big part of SuperFood Drive’s efforts include educating those who make donations as well as those who receive them. Simple choices are all it takes to elevate a donation from ho-hum to healthy–for example, choosing whole-grain pasta, brown rice instead of white rice, a bottle of olive oil, canned salmon, fruit packed in water instead of heavy syrup, nut butters made without hydrogenated oil or sugar. For those on the receiving end, SuperFood Drive has hosted cooking demos and offers recipe cards to go in distribution bags so people have some ideas for how to use the whole foods.

SuperFood Drive has partnered with Whole Foods, Jimbo’s…Naturally! and San Diego-area breweries and restaurants, and they’re developing partnerships with Albertson’s, Ralphs and Costco. So far this year, SuperFoods Drive has donated 10,000 pounds of food to San Diego-area food banks, and Solari expects that number to double after this month’s drives are completed.

But you don’t have to be in San Diego to participate in a SuperFood Drive. Anyone can organize a drive, says Solari, and people have hosted their own healthy food drives in communities across the country, from Maryland to Seattle to Los Angeles. “It’s really picking up in a grass-roots way now,” she says. (The website has step-by-step tips to host your own event.) And there’s also a virtual SuperFood Drive that allows people to purchase healthy nonperishables online at wholesale prices.

Although December is food-drive season, Solari notes that food banks often run out of those holiday donations by March or April, leaving shelves sparsely stocked through the summer. “We’re thrilled whenever someone contacts us during the holidays to host a food drive,” she says. “But there are hungry people 365 days a year.”

So we propose this nourishing New Year’s resolution: Mark your 2011 calendar to give monthly food bank donations. And make sure they’re SuperFoods!