Maximizing Nutrition, Optimizing Health

by Marla Feldman Senior Program Director, MAZON

A growing number of Feeding America food banks have expanded their traditional role of food provision. Whether big or small, urban or rural, highly resourced or of limited capacity, more and more food banks are broadening their role to address the health disparities that affect low-income communities.

Among the important changes is an improvement in the nutritional quality of the food in their inventories. One strategy that has been key to many food banks’ success in making the distribution of nutritious food an organizational priority is the implementation of a formal nutrition policy. Formal, written, board-approved nutrition policies are helping food banks create buy-in from staff, volunteers, partner agencies, and other key stakeholders; ensure accountability; and send a clear and consistent message that hunger is a health issue.

For more than a decade, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger has been helping food banks to develop and implement formal nutrition policies. As more food banks align their mission and organizational goals to prioritize health among the vulnerable communities they serve, MAZON has been contacted by many seeking guidance around emerging questions: what to do with food that no longer meets their nutrition standards and what kind of response should they anticipate from donors in reaction to their changes. It is conversations like these that led MAZON to conduct a national food bank survey last summer.

Our new research report, A Tipping Point: Leveraging Opportunities to Improve the Nutritional Quality of Food Bank Inventory, outlines findings from this survey, which explored a number of critical topics, including:

  • the prevalence of nutrition policies and inventory tracking systems,
  • the extent to which food banks are educating donors about their nutrition priorities and the real or perceived consequences of doing so, and
  • the impact these efforts are having on the nutritional quality of the food being distributed.

The survey findings were clear: change is happening. One third of food banks already have a formal nutrition policy, and nearly a third more have plans to develop one. More than half are tracking nutrition. Many are starting to educate donors about their efforts to promote health by distributing more nutritious food.

Another positive trend emerged: food banks’ efforts to improve the nutritional quality of inventory have not negatively impacted their annual pounds (the measure by which they are evaluated) nor have they caused donors to walk away. In other words, food banks need not fear that making these positive changes will be detrimental to them. Quite the contrary, only a few survey respondents indicated that their new focus on nutrition had yielded a negative response from donors.

The survey also revealed an area for improvement. Through concerted and sustained efforts, the field has successfully increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, which, on average, now comprises one third of total inventory distributed. However, the percentage of unhealthy snacks and sugary beverages distributed through the charitable food system is still quite high: on average, a full quarter of inventory. If food banks are truly going to be successful in their efforts to positively impact health among the vulnerable populations they serve, they must continue to reduce the proportion of these unhealthy foods in the system.

The good news is, Feeding America and the charitable food network have the necessary momentum, and are only growing stronger. More and more food banks recognize the opportunity before them and are choosing to prioritize the health of their communities, which is yielding significant improvements in the nutritional quality of their inventories.

With millions at risk of losing their benefits due to threats to SNAP in the House version of the Farm Bill, there is the very real potential for an even greater reliance on the charitable system by those seeking nutrition assistance. Now is the perfect time to advance even further these vital system-wide changes to maximize the proportion of nutritious food reaching those who need it most.

Marla Feldman is the Senior Program Director at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Since joining the organization in 2002, Marla has been leading efforts to promote positive health outcomes and improve access to nutritious food for low-income communities. Marla has spearheaded national initiatives, such as Healthy Options, Healthy Meals, which encouraged food banks to prioritize nutrition and implement strategies to procure and distribute healthier food. Prior to joining MAZON, Marla spent nearly a decade managing small business development programs with the African Development Foundation.