The University of Connecticut Rudd Center took part in the development of a foodbank toolkit for Feeding America.
The Nutrition in Food Banking Toolkit, released last week, is a great resource for food banks and food pantry programs to better understand and meet the nutrition needs of people experiencing food insecurity.
Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center and a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, was part of the task force that created the toolkit.
“Food banks receive donations and distribute it to their communities through food pantries, which are often at churches or community centers, as well as places that serve an actual hot meal,” Schwartz said. “Historically, the metric used to keep track of these programs was how many thousands of pounds of food that were actually distributed.”
Rather than looking at how much food is being distributed in weight, Schwartz and the Feeding America’s Nutritious Food Revisioning Taskforce wanted to look at what was being distributed in terms of nutrition.
“The basic idea is to provide, in very concrete terms, what a food bank needs to do to start ranking food nutritionally,” Schwartz said. “We have been doing a series of studies that shows when people have that information, it matters. It changes people’s behavior. We use a green-yellow-red ranking system, and we found that when pantries use it, the nutritional quality of what they ordered improves.”
Many food banks do some sort of nutritional tracking, but the systems vary, Schwartz said.
“A lot of research has come out in the last 10 years showing that the people who use the charitable food systems are at significantly higher risk for diet-related chronic diseases … things like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension,” Schwartz said. “Those are all illnesses that are very much influenced by what you eat.”
The toolkit is intended to impact the entire system from top to bottom, which should improve public health based on changes in what pantries take, what donors give and what clients receive.
“One of the stereotypes about people who go to food pantries is that they don’t want to cook themselves, and we have found that is absolutely not the case,” Schwartz said. “What is hard for clients to get are things like cooking oils, spices and baking ingredients. These things are very expensive, and I would like to see whole drives center around these types of things.”
Food insecurity forces families to choose between paying bills like rent and heat or spending the money on healthier foods. Usually, less money is spent on food, increasing the consumption of foods with higher calories and less nutrition.
“You get into this bad cycle. The less healthy you are, the less capable you are of working and the more expensive your health costs are,” Schwartz said. “Food insecurity causes a cascade of problems that makes the original problem worse. You are still going to have a lot of issues to deal with if you are low-income, but if we can solve the food problem, then the focus can be on other problems.”