Study finds food banks working to provide more healthful food to hungry families

Food Banks are working to make improvements to the nutritional quality of foods they distribute, but there is still work to be done. Researchers at the Atkins Center for Weight and Health (CWH) at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a study of nutrition policies and practices at food banks. Research findings together with discussion of their implications were released in a series of four articles in a special edition of the September issue of the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research Program, which supports research on policy and environmental approaches to preventing obesity.

The first article reports the findings of a survey of more than 200 U.S. Feeding America food banks about their organizational views, policies and practices relating to nutrition, particularly the nutrition quality of foods distributed. Most food bank managers were supportive of nutrition in food banking practices, and indicated having the intent to improve the nutritional quality of foods. This is a significant shift from the traditional view that food banks’ only mission is to address hunger and not necessarily health. Few food banks had written nutrition policies. Many food banks did not actively discourage donations of less healthful foods such as soda and snack foods, and most did not specifically track the nutrition quality of the foods in their inventory.

The second article is based on a more in-depth study conducted with six California food banks between 2007 and 2010. An analysis of their inventory data over four years showed promising trends. Most notably, there was a very substantial increase in fresh produce procured and distributed, and a decline in sugar-sweetened beverages and snack foods. Despite the decline in donations of these items, they still contribute significant calories to the diets of the low-income families who use emergency foods. The food bank with the largest supply of donated sugar-sweetened beverages distributed over 1 million pounds of these drinks in 2010 or the equivalent of 208 million (liquid sugar) calories. In the same year, the food bank with the largest quantities of donated savory snack foods (i.e., chips, crackers, etc.) distributed 164,000 pounds or approximately 370 million calories from these foods, a potential contribution to weight gain and obesity among emergency food clients. Other areas highlighted for improvement included the need for procuring lower fat meats and dairy foods, and whole grains, and more nutrient dense varieties of fruits and vegetables.

The third paper describes a meeting, convened by California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA), at which emergency food network leaders considered and discussed the study results. From this meeting, CFPA and the CWH research team developed recommendations for public and organizational policies that could improve the nutritional quality of food distributed by food banks and other emergency providers. Among the recommendations was a call for organizational policies establishing nutrition goals and guidelines for local, regional, and national agencies throughout the emergency food network.

An editorial in the same issue by a CWH researcher points to a growing movement among the emergency food network towards a commitment to a combined effort to address food insecurity and to protect the health of the clients they serve. Linkages between food banks and community health programs and personnel are showing promise as a valuable partnership.

Read the journal articles