Food pantries select foods with higher nutritional quality, such as fresh produce, brown rice, and low-fat meats, when nutrition information is made available, according to new research from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Selections of less healthy options, such as sugary juice drinks, higher fat dairy, and higher fat meats, also decrease when nutrition information is available.
The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is driving up food insecurity across the United States, with Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, estimating an additional 17 million people could become food insecure because of the pandemic. Since food insecurity and poor nutrition are associated with several chronic illnesses known to increase risk for COVID-19 complications, access to healthy foods is essential to ensure public health and health equity.
“With more people struggling to keep their families fed, it is critically important to make sure the foods available to them within the charitable food system are providing adequate nutrition, and helping to mitigate diet-related diseases,” says Marlene Schwartz, Director of the Rudd Center and co-author of the study.
Community food pantries where individuals receive food typically obtain much of their inventory from their local food bank. Foodshare, a New England food bank, began ranking the nutritional quality of their inventory as “green,” “yellow,” or “red” based on the Dietary Guidelines. They decided to make these labels visible in their online ordering system to their partner food pantries in 2018. This study tested whether food pantry orders changed after food pantry staff could see the ratings by evaluating all orders before and after nutrition information was made available. During this study, the Foodshare Board of Directors also approved a Nutrition Policy to promote the collection and distribution of healthy food, further reinforcing the nutrition ranking system.
Key findings include:
- There was a significant increase in orders for green foods and a significant decrease in orders for red foods, driven by shifts between similar types of food within different categories.
- A large increase in orders for fresh produce occurred as orders for canned and frozen fruit packed in syrup went down.
- Lower-fat animal proteins and dairy product orders increased while orders of higher fat versions of these foods decreased.
- There were decreases in orders of products that may have seemed healthy when the nutrition label was unavailable, such as sugary juice drinks and cereals with added sugars.
“This study, supported by Feeding America, illuminates critical research for implementing health-promoting interventions within our complex system. The Feeding America food bank network is working tirelessly, including during the current health pandemic, to increase offerings of nutritious foods and further transform the charitable feeding sector to better meet the food and health needs of neighbors across the country,” says Jessica Hager, Director of Healthcare Partnerships and Nutrition, Feeding America.
“Many food banks are beginning to rank their food nutritionally, which creates a tremendous opportunity to share this information with the food pantries that order food from the food bank. Our results show that the nutrition rankings prompt food pantry staff to order healthier food items, which will improve the supply of nutritious food available for people struggling with food insecurity and chronic diseases,” says Katie Martin, co-author of the study and Executive Director of the Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions.