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In the News: Pantries Explore Pathways to Better Nutrition

Pantries Explore Pathways to Better Nutrition 
JULY 8, 2021

Earlier this year, Food Outreach, a St. Louis-based provider of medically tailored food and meals, reached out to a local bakery with the idea of creating a special artisan bread loaf that would enhance the health of its immune-compromised clients. Weeks of building and perfecting a recipe resulted in a naturally fermented sourdough loaf made out of whole grains from a local farm.

Paying extra attention to ingredients is par for the course at the nonprofit, which provides support to people living with nutritionally sensitive diseases like HIV/AIDs or cancer. Increasingly, pantries serving the general population are following the lead of organizations like Food Outreach by seeking to upgrade the nutritional quality of the food they distribute.

Their efforts can combat a lack of access to healthy diets that is commonplace among people who rely on government aid for food. A report released last month by the USDA found that 88% of SNAP participants faced challenges to eating a healthy diet, with most (61%) citing cost as the biggest barrier.

As pantries seek to help their clients achieve healthier lifestyles, they are exploring a number of pathways toward better nutrition.

Training from Leah’s Pantry focuses on holistic, trauma-informed nutrition security, said Adrienne Markworth.
The Mountie Fresh Food Pantry at Mount San Antonio College near Los Angeles, has taken a holistic approach to healthy food access, after taking part in training on trauma-informed nutrition security from Leah’s Pantry, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Leah’s Pantry, which has trained about 160 organizations, seeks to go beyond simply making sure pantries offer nutritious food. 

Rather, its Nutrition Pantry Program takes a human-centered approach, in acknowledgment of the fullness of the people coming to a pantry — who they are, what they need and want, and how the pantry can elevate the meaning of food in their lives. “It’s backing away from the transactional nature of food that is so prevalent in our food system,” said Adrienne Markworth, Executive Director at Leah’s Pantry.

Training occurs along six focus areas, and includes things like offering a welcoming environment, collaborating with the community, and prioritizing healthy food distribution. Pantries that achieve five of the six standards graduate from the program, usually taking about six months. Program graduates on average make about 16 changes to their pantries — from adding a waiting room, to increasing language capacity, instituting a nutrition policy or training volunteers, for example. “We track every single change made by every single pantry,” Markworth said.

The Mountie Fresh pantry earned a gold level certification from Leah’s Pantry after making several changes. Rather than distributing pre-bagged food once a month at the student life center, the pantry now offers food through a more festive, farmer’s market-style environment. It also worked to secure a location, now open three times a week for three weeks out of the month, for a Trader Joe’s-style pantry where students shop with a basket, choosing their own food. The idea is “to make the experience as natural as possible,” said Rigo Estrada, MSW, Manager of Basic Needs Resources Student Services at the college.

The pantry has also upgraded the type of food it distributes, focusing more on fresh produce, proper grains and healthy snacks. “We realized we were focusing too much on pastries and Cup O’ Noodles and other very unhealthy options,” Estrada said. For foods that might be unfamiliar, the pantry is now providing recipes, such as a chili recipe that uses kidney beans. 

The training from Leah’s Pantry helped the student volunteers understand that they were not just providing food or a product, Estrada said. “We’re making a connection — connecting with each other and the connection students have with food,” he said. “Those are the moments that have made our students enjoy our food pantry and benefit from it.”

The SWAP system helps Beyond Hunger better understand the nutritional components of its donated food, said Brianne Kellogg.

In Oak Park, Ill., just west of Chicago, Beyond Hunger has formalized its commitment to healthy food with a system that helps it rank the nutritional quality of the food it offers. While nutritious food has always been a priority, the pantry upped its game about two years ago by instituting the SWAP (Supporting Wellness at Pantries) system from the Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions.

SWAP assists in addressing a common issue at the food pantry — the fact that food donated by community members and area grocery stores is not always the healthiest possible. SWAP helps Beyond Hunger understand the nutritional components of its donated food, while also guiding pantry clients to select the best options.

SWAP targets the three nutrients most relevant to chronic disease — saturated fat, sodium and sugar. “We really liked that it looked at three major nutrients and not the full nutrition facts label,” said Brianne Kellogg, MS RDN LDN, Nutrition Education Coordinator and Dietician at Beyond Hunger. “It’s focused on the three nutrients connected to so many diseases we see in our communities.” 

Pantry workers and volunteers then classify the food according to three categories — green for often, yellow for sometimes, and red for rarely — an arrangement that is widely understood and accepted by clients. Beyond Hunger got buy-in from clients to move forward with the methodology from focus groups it convened. “Clients thought it was a great idea because now they didn’t have to stand there and look at a nutrition label while they shopped in our pantry,” Kellogg said.

Beyond Hunger took some time when it began transitioning to SWAP to set up shelf tags and other nudges to push clients toward healthy choices. It also rearranged its pantry to accommodate the different food categories and did some education during distributions about the stoplight colors and the three nutrients they represent. 

Now Beyond Hunger’s goal is to have 85% of the products on the shelves be either green or yellow. “Clients say it’s easier to make choices that support better health outcomes for them,” Kellogg said. — Reporting by Nicole Rasul