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A food bank nutritionist who touches half a million lives

Kendra Bird (center) and Framingham State University intern Kelly Fischl (in green) talk about fitness and nutrition with a group of girls at the Boys & Girls Club in Chelsea.

Michele McDonald For The Boston Globe

Kendra Bird (center) and Framingham State University intern Kelly Fischl (in green) talk about fitness and nutrition with a group of girls at the Boys & Girls Club in Chelsea.

Abusy nutritionist might help, oh, 1,000 clients a year. Kendra Bird assists half a million — not singlehandedly, of course.

The director of nutrition for the Greater Boston Food Bank oversees the safety, quality, and healthfulness of the 37 million pounds of food that pass through the Food Bank annually — goods that in turn are distributed to 549 hunger-relief agencies and 490 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters throughout the Commonwealth. Between that and her involvement with the bank’s various educational and food-safety activities, Bird touches a lot of lives.

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That was always the plan. “I’m a people person,” says Bird in her tidy office at the Food Bank’s gleaming Dorchester facility, built in 2009. Surrounding her are photos of her 1-year-old daughter, Olivia, and various props and tools she uses when she wears her nutrition-educator hat. After graduating from Framingham State College, she spent three years as a nutritionist with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC.

Michele McDonald For The Boston Globe

The children helped prepare a quinoa salad with vegetables.

Ready for a change, Bird took on the food-bank job three years ago. Today, she divides her days between nutrition education, food safety, and what she calls measurement — an analysis of the vast inventory. As she walks through the 117,000-square-foot warehouse, stacked to the ceiling with pallets of canned goods and other groceries, Bird explains, “I complete a nutrition measurement for every product and rate them 1, 2, or 3. A rating of 1 is the best; a 3 is a ‘sometimes’ food.” The system is quite simplified, she admits, but it does give those who use the food some framework for assessing the healthfulness.

In addition to the distribution of food there are programs such as Brown Bag, which provides supplemental groceries to seniors and children, and Kids Cafe, a partnership with seven local Boys & Girls Clubs. Through Kids Cafe, 1,500 meals are served five nights a week, using menus created by Bird and her food-bank colleague and fellow nutritionist Adriene Worthington.

Kids Cafe also has an education component; Bird oversees nutrition classes for the kids who participate. Some of the classes are taught by nutrition students, and Bird is charged with assessing their performance. Late on a recent Friday afternoon, near the end of a long week, Bird and Worthington head to the Boys & Girls Club in Chelsea. The kids — about 10 girls between the ages of 6 and 8 — are wiggly and tired by this time of day.

But they’re also enthusiastic, shouting out answers as the instructors ask them to name foods that contain protein. “Octopus!” says one.

“You guys know your food groups a lot better now than you did five weeks ago,” says Bird. Earlier, she had said that being out in the community was her favorite part of the job, and she clearly relishes this chance to connect with her young clientele.

Later, the kids help prepare a quinoa salad with cut-up vegetables. When the time comes to sample the snack, 8-year-old Josilyn Santiago says, “I don’t like it — I love it.”

The students are given bags full of information and goodies to take home, including a little cookbook of healthy recipes. “A cookbook?” shouts student Jazz Lorenzana, 8, as she pulls it from the bag. “Really? Yay!”

Since becoming a mother, Bird is even more attuned to encouraging good eating habits early. “My baby is on table food now, so I’m exposing her to a variety of foods and hoping she won’t grow up to be a picky eater,” says Bird.

As the girls pack up and get ready to leave, Josilyn declares, “This is the best class I’ve ever taken in my life!”

For Bird, that’s mission accomplished.

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.
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