It’s real…but it’s also a joke. July 21 is now designated as the day when we are encouraged to eat all the junk food we want—cheeseburgers with bacon, nachos with cheese, junk dogs…well, your choice—without  guilt.

But the joke is not so funny when you think about the national childhood obesity epidemic that The Junior Leagues’ Kids in the Kitchen program addresses.  And it lacks humor when you consider the fact that, in America’s inner cities, junk food is all that is available for most residents.

For most of us, this isn’t an issue.  We have easy access to a range of supermarkets, Whole Foods and farmer’s markets where fresh and healthy food is available every day.

But what if you had to rely on a food pantry to feed your family?

The concept of the free food pantry has been around since at least the Great Depression – and it’s getting, unfortunately, a lot of replay during the Great Recession. Think of a crowded church basement with cans and packaged food piled high on shelves.

But do we need to improve the basic model? The answer, based on the results of a truly innovative program in Hartford called Freshplace, is definitely yes.

Founded by the Junior League of Hartford (JLH), Chrysalis Center, a Connecticut-based nonprofit healthcare agency, and Foodshare, the area’s regional food bank, Freshplace deals directly with the issue of healthy food by providing needy residents of the Upper Albany neighborhood of Hartford—one of the poorest cities in the country—with options to junk food. It starts with fresh food, including refrigerated dairy products, meat, fruits and vegetables as well as canned food and dry goods.  Freshplace clients, referred to as “members,” choose the foods they want, as they co-shop with volunteers in a state-of-the-art 2,000-square-foot facility. Cooking classes demonstrate healthy meal preparation, as well as nutrition education. But food is just a start, as Freshplace staff and volunteers provide members with a portal for access to social services, and other nonprofit and government assistance programs to address issues involving food security, self-sufficiency, benefits and entitlements, and health. Additionally, members receive access to job support, including computers to prepare resumes and search for employment.

What’s the goal?  Nothing less than reinventing the food pantry model in a way that can be implemented anywhere else, says JLH President Wendy Avery. “With an estimated 128,000+ members of our community affected by hunger every day, Freshplace is an important JLH initiative that addresses a critical local need.  But we also believe that addressing hunger on a national level requires new tools. Freshplace—with its emphasis on choice, nutrition education, and referrals to other resources to help our clients—could be that model for the thousands of nonprofits that operate food pantries, including other Junior Leagues.”

After three years of planning and construction for the pantry, the program opened in July 2010.  And to prove that their model really works, the Freshplace collaborators have partnered with the University of Connecticut’s School of Allied Health Sciences to analyze client satisfaction and outcomes in an 18 month study.

Success, notes Wendy, involves more than providing free food; it involves actively helping Freshplace members to progress from food insecurity to eventual self-sufficiency.  “We envision progression through the Freshplace program to be much like a journey:  individuals enter with a desire to gain the skills needed to move out of crisis; they get the training and support they need at Freshplace; they ‘graduate’ to put their training to work; and then return to help and mentor others.”

Freshplace now serves 100 families and individuals. The JLH has committed up to $190,000 to the program and the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut has provided additional significant funding.  Freshplace nourishes the community by providing healthy food, and the support needed to move from food insecurity to self-sufficiency.  And that’s no junk.