New Guidelines to Increase Access to Healthy Food and Beverages in Food Banks

by Megan Lott, MPH, RD Deputy Director, Healthy Eating Research

Nearly 15 years ago, one of my first jobs after college was running a senior brown bag program at a food bank. Every month, I was in charge of putting together a supplemental bag of groceries for seniors living on low or fixed incomes. Even with the support of other programs like SNAP, Medicare, and social security, program participants often told me how difficult it was to afford food after they spent their limited incomes on medications, rent, and heating bills.

With a background in nutrition, I was acutely aware of the fact that the majority of seniors in this program were also dealing with at least one chronic illness. Obesity, high blood pressure, or diabetes were the most commonly reported. This made the nutritional quality of the food we provided that much more important. And yet, finding the healthier foods I knew they needed every month, like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, was a constant struggle. We tried creative ways to prioritize getting donations of healthier foods, but the reality was that most of our inventory was made up of shelf-stable, highly-processed foods high in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

This is why I am thrilled to share that today Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation based at Duke University, in partnership with Feeding America, released a comprehensive set of evidence-based guidelines to help food banks and food pantries improve the nutritional quality of the items they provide to individuals and families. The guidelines focus on increasing access to healthier food choices, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean proteins, with an easy-to-understand system that organizes and ranks products according to the amounts of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar they contain. Using tiers of green (choose often), yellow (choose sometimes), and red (choose rarely) makes the healthfulness of products easy for just about anyone to understand, regardless of age, native language, or nutrition background.

According to the latest data, approximately 1 in 9 households in the U.S. experience food insecurity – meaning individuals lack consistent access to enough of the nutritious foods needed to live a healthy and active life. And, due to ongoing challenges like underemployment, stagnant wages, and the rising cost of daily living, federal food assistance programs like SNAP or WIC still are not enough to make ends meet for most families experiencing food insecurity. Thus, many families today are relying on food banks or food pantries to help bridge the gap in their food needs.

While food banks around the country, including the more than 200 food banks and pantries in Feeding America’s network, have made great strides over the past decade in successfully sourcing healthier foods, having an updated, common set of nutrition criteria in the charitable food system will likely lead to even greater success. These guidelines have the potential to lead to widespread policy and systemic change by guiding conversations with donors about which items food banks prefer to distribute; discussions with policymakers about strategies to incentivize healthier donations; and recommendations concerning how food banks can use their limited dollars to purchase foods. In addition, collectively adopting this new, consistent set of nutrition guidelines can increase the ease of implementation at food banks, food pantries, and meal programs across the country so that individuals and families in every community can more easily access the foods and beverages we all need to live a healthy life.

Megan Lott is the Deputy Director for Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation based at Duke University, which supports research on policy, systems, and environmental strategies that have strong potential to promote healthy eating among children. Megan is a registered dietitian with a B.S. in nutrition sciences and dietetics from the University of Cincinnati and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She has extensive experience working in nutrition policy and research, especially in the areas of early childhood and the school food environment.