Healthy Choice Pantry – Because it Takes More Than Food to End Hunger

by Katie Martin Assistant Professor, University of Saint Joseph

Imagine that your health clinic recently told you that you have high blood pressure and recommends that you reduce your salt intake. When you visit your local food pantry, you are handed a bag of food with several items with high salt content. Unfortunately, this dilemma is all too common. Fortunately, there are strategies to help.

Many people who visit food pantries do so frequently, rather than as a short-term emergency, and often experience high rates of chronic diseases. In traditional food pantries, staple food items can exacerbate health disparities. That’s why my colleagues and I created More Than Food, a framework for building capacity within food pantries to address the root causes of hunger and provide longer-term solutions.

One key aspect of our framework is Choice, specifically whether food pantries allow individuals to choose the foods they prefer and where healthy food is available and promoted. A healthy choice pantry has the potential to decrease chronic disease risk, and to build a culture of respect and dignity.

The Research

Our research shows that when pantries provide choice and offer “more than food”, members have increased food security, self-sufficiency, self-efficacy and diet quality.

  • Martin K, Wu R, Wolff M, Colantonio A, Grady J. A Novel Food Pantry Program: Food Security, Self-Sufficiency, and Diet-Quality Outcomes. Am J Prev Med 2013;45(5):569–575.
  • Martin K, Colantonio A, Boyle K, Picho K. Self-Efficacy is Associated with Increased Food Security in Novel Food Pantry Program. Soc Sci & Med – Pop Health 2. 2016; 62-67.

At traditional food pantries, indivuduals line up to receive pre-packaged bags of food. There is limited interaction between volunteers and people served, and zero choice on what food is received. Our framework describes Choice as pantries that are set up like small grocery stores where healthy food items are promoted, where individuals have the dignity to touch and choose the foods they prefer, and where nutrition education is offered to build skills for healthier choices.

Making the Case for Choice

While many food pantries say they provide “Choice”, we find that there are different perceptions of what choice entails, and different nuances for offering choice. Think about a food pantry that you know or work with: Can individuals touch the food or do volunteers place the food in bags? When shopping, is there a volunteer “policing” the food individuals take? Is there signage or nutrition education to help identify which foods are healthy? Are food items available that are culturally relevant for the population being served?

We hear barriers about why a pantry cannot offer choice: not enough space, it will take too long, people served will take too much food. Time and time again, once pantry staff convert to choice, they wonder why they waited so long, and they realize these barriers did not hold true. Even if pantries operate out of a small room, tables or shelves can be designed so individuals or families can touch and select their own food. Food banks can provide leadership to shift pantries towards healthy choice. On the More Than Food website, we provide resources for helping pantries offer healthy choice.

Choice is one key aspect for moving food pantry operations from merely transactional to relational. Rather than spending time bagging food, volunteers can chat with people they serve, share recipes and promote a welcoming environment. Because it takes more than food to end hunger.

Katie Martin, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut. She has spent her professional career focused on food security and access to healthy food in community settings. She was the Principal Investigator of the rigorous study to evaluate Freshplace, and currently is working to promote, replicate and evaluate the More than Food framework in additional communities. Katie earned her Ph.D. from Tufts University, School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She serves as a consultant for organizations who want to replicate the More than Food framework in their work.