Food pantries turn to healthier options

January 5, 2018

Imagine going to the grocery store with a list, ready to fill your cart with goods for the week’s meals. Instead of going through the aisles and picking what you know you and your family will eat, and what items they can eat based on food allergies or favorites, you are given a box of food and ushered out the door. It would be better than no food, but most of us would miss being able to choose what to take home.

That realization, along with an increased focus on healthy eating, is driving food banks across the country to make the switch to client choice pantries. These revamped food pantries include signage on healthy foods, things like the MyPlate guide and free recipes, and they often give clients freedom to pick what they want.

A recent story in The Inlander featured changes at Spokane’s Better Living Center, a Second Harvest partner pantry implementing client choice. The transition is a big one for pantries, but it’s worth it for clients.

"Can you imagine going to the grocery store and just being handed a bag of food?" says Mindy Wallis, nutrition education manager for Second Harvest. "You want to choose what you want to eat, and you're more likely to eat it that way, too."

Many pantries are also making the switch to become so-called Healthy Pantries – places that put an emphasis on healthy foods, produce and include healthy nudges.

According to Feeding America, healthy nudges are subtle environment changes in a food distribution setting, designed to make a healthy choice the easy choice.

Examples of healthy nudges include providing nutrition information about foods on-site, provide ‘foods to encourage’ on site, and making these things available at little to no cost. Foods to encourage include things like cereals, vegetables, fruit, dairy and other healthy items that align with the USDA MyPlate guidelines.

A recent study from Cornell University and Feeding America increased the likelihood a healthy food item was chosen by food pantry clients by 46 percent. According to the study,  “nudge  interventions  can  be  particularly  beneficial  for  food   pantries   that   do   not   have   the   capacity to incorporate  traditional  nutrition  education  strategies,  such as classes or workshops. They can also complement existing nutrition education efforts to help make healthy choices the easy choice.”

“Having the fresh produce first for selections I believe certainly does encourage our clients to make some healthier choices,” said Sharon, manager at Othello Food Bank. “When you’re in line and anxious about getting food for your family, you are pretty much focused on getting what you see first.”

Approximately 18 Second Harvest partner pantries have been set up as Healthy Pantries or are in the process of doing so, said Christina Geschke-Lagrou, Second Harvest nutrition outreach coordinator.

No official certification is required to become a healthy pantry, Geschke-Lagrou said, but someone from the Second Harvest nutrition outreach team does an initial assessment to see what needs to be changed so the site can become a Healthy Pantry.

“The pantry managers have told me they’ve heard positive feedback from the clients about being able to shop and how welcoming the changes have been,” Geschke-Lagrou said.

“The most rewarding result I see is that by allowing clients to shop for food this not only promotes dignity, it allows the clients to have more control of what they eat, it promotes healthy lifestyles, and benefits those who have dietary restrictions, including food allergies.”