Safe and Healthy Food Pantry Project: The Start of Something BIG

Laura Apfelbeck, County Coordinator

People who rely on food pantries may have a more difficult time eating healthfully, according to a recent article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Oct. 2016). The study examined the contents of bags distributed over 30 years and found many did not meet minimum recommended amounts of dairy products, vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc and calcium.

Most pantries operate as an occasional source of food but in reality some families are using pantries regularly over a long period of time. Because many food pantries cannot store fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen or refrigerated items, food boxes are often filled with canned and boxed items. While sustaining, these foods may also be higher in sodium and lower in fiber or vitamins. Thus, people already struggling financially may find themselves susceptible to diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

With these issues in mind, FoodWIse has begun a series of assessments to determine which pantry managers are ready to explore changes. Although nutrition educators from FoodWIse have been providing on-site nutrition education at Salvation Army, Peter’s Pantry, and Two Rivers Ecumenical Pantry for several years, policy and system changes may actually have greater impact. FoodWIse nutrition educators will continue to meet with pantry managers throughout the summer to conduct surveys. Potential project outcomes include the adoption of a nutrition policy and implementation of such practices as providing a shopping list and recipes, posting signs prompting healthy choices, educating donors, making food choices flexible, supporting clients while shopping, or offering incentives to encourage healthy eating. The goal is to identify pantry managers interested in starting monthly nutrition education and two pantry managers interested in broader policy and systems change in the coming fiscal year.

One early need identified in the assessments is the need for healthier food donations. Healthiest Manitowoc County Coalition is now adapting the Food Drive 5 Toolkit created by Beyond Health of Brown County as a way to improve food donations. The toolkit features a step-by-step guide to hosting a food drive along with ready-made posters encouraging donations of the five most needed items: (1) canned fruits packed in juice rather than syrup, (2) colorful vegetables low in sodium, (3) low fat protein sources like beans, nut butters, tuna and chicken, (4) whole grain pasta, crackers, cereals and brown rice, and (5) low sodium soups with vegetables and protein. The toolkit will be available online free to any individual or organization planning a food drive.