GLOUCESTER — Even after a long, brutal winter, Julie LaFontaine loves the cold.
To LaFontaine, executive director of the Open Door food pantry, cold doesn’t mean winter; it means the opportunity to help the agency’s 6,000 low-income clients get access to fresh produce, meat, and dairy products.
Open Door is among the many food pantries across the state that are adding walk-in refrigerators, freezers, and even gardens to provide healthier foods, spending thousands of dollars to remodel facilities long configured to distribute cans and boxes of processed foods. Open Door, for example, installed a walk-in cooler in March to hold hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables and constructed an adjacent room that will soon be fitted with sinks and stainless steel tables so workers can sort, wash, and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables as soon as they are delivered.
“We are all moving quickly past the model where it’s canned corn and peanut butter,” LaFontaine said, as she surveyed shelves of prepared green peas and 50-pound bags of carrots in the walk-in. “In connecting them to fresh fruits and vegetables, we’re connecting them to better health.”
As doctors and nutritionists urge people to eat more fresh and fewer processed foods, grocery stores have expanded produce and fresh food sections to meet consumer demand for healthier fare.
Now, many of the 650 food pantries across the state are responding to the same demand, working to improve the diets of poor families who can’t regularly afford to buy fresh meat and produce at supermarkets.
Leading the effort is the Greater Boston Food Bank, which acquires and distributes food to 500 member food pantries and hunger-relief groups. Twenty years ago, said chief executive Catherine D’Amato, the food bank “couldn’t move a carrot.” Today, fresh produce makes up 25 percent of the 51 million pounds of food it distributes annually. D’Amato hopes to get that number up to 35 percent in the next few years.
The food bank, which built a headquarters in Boston in 2009, has more than 370,000 cubic feet of cold storage — enough to fill a professional football field to a depth of more than 6 feet — for perishables including produce, meats, milk, and cheese.
The organization also offers grants to its member pantries to help them buy equipment or make renovations needed to offer more fresh food.
The grants, averaging $3,000, cover up to 50 percent of a project’s cost.
Among the nonprofits that have received a grant is the Hanson Food Pantry, which added a commercial-size refrigerator last year and a walk-in freezer in 2013.
“I want to give them quality foods that are at the peak of their flavor,” said Sharon Kennedy, director of operations at the Plymouth County nonprofit, which serves up to 300 families each month.
The food pantry at the Greater Boston Nazarene Compassionate Center in Mattapan is now shopping for a walk-in cooler. The Yarmouth Food Pantry on Cape Cod just received a $4,000 grant it will use to buy two commercial refrigerators with glass doors, much like the ones in supermarkets, so clients can see the fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Today, less than 10 percent of the food the Yarmouth pantry distributes is fresh; the new refrigerators will expand that share significantly, said executive director Sue Martin.
“What’s clear to me is the clients love getting fresh produce,” Martin said. “It’s such a shot in the arm to be able to give out not just food, but also give out some healthy, healthy food.”
Food pantries generally serve anyone in need, but most clients have incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold, $23,850, in annual income for a four-person household.
The Gloucester pantry first began offering fresh foods and vegetables more than a decade ago, said LaFontaine, the executive director. But it lacked space for more than a small supply.
The recent renovations, part of a $1.25 million overhaul, tripled the pantry’s cold storage capacity. The goal, LaFontaine said, is for fresh produce to make up 30 percent of client orders in 2015, up from 22 percent last year.
LaFontaine said the pantry is being reconfigured to more closely resemble the experience of shopping in a supermarket.
Clients will be able to choose foods from rows of shelves and displays, a change aimed at lessening the stigma sometimes attached to visiting a food pantry. Outside, kale, eggplant, tomatoes, and herbs grow in about a dozen raised garden beds.
The changes at Open Door and other pantries are less about keeping up with the latest trends and more about rethinking how best to serve clients, LaFontaine said.
“As a population, we’ve become more aware of our food choices and their impact on our health,” she said. “Any time you can have a fresh, whole food, that’s a better choice.”