Banking on Better Health: Food Banks and Nutritional Quality Assurance

Food Banks are putting policies in place to increase healthy food options. (shutterstock)

In 2006, 25 million Americans were provided food by food pantries or soup kitchens served by Feeding America. Four years later, in 2010, this number had jumped 46 percent to 37 million Americans who were provided food that year by Feeding America. Various food banks and emergency food programs are now taking a more selective approach to the kinds of food they will allow onto their shelves.

 
Food banks, like those run by Keystone Community Services and the Eagan & Lakeville Resource Center in Minneapolis have chosen to focus more on the quality of the food that is being accepted by their food program. The Eagan & Lakeville Resource Center instated a "Healthy Food Policy" in September, which prevents unhealthy food items, like candy, soda, and salty snacks from finding their way onto their food shelves.
 
Eagan & Lakeville Resource Center is not alone in its efforts to increase access to nutrition for their clients. Recent studies conducted by UC Berkeley's Atkins Center for Weight and Health and Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity report that food banks are increasingly aware of the importance of ensuring that their shelves are stocked with healthier options. The studies also document efforts made by food bank managers to improve the nutritional quality of their donations.

Moreover, efforts to increase the nutritional value of food delivered through food banks and other hunger relief programs have not fallen solely on individual food banks or hunger relief programs. The Minneapolis Healthy Food Shelf Network was recently formed by the city's Health Department to help food banks obtain and distribute healthier foods to donation recipients. Initiatives, like the Minneapolis Healthy Food Shelf Network, have been motivated by the recognition of a nationwide pattern showing that many clients who rely on hunger relief programs also suffer from the highest rate of health problems.
 
Feeding America launched its Healthy Food Bank Hub this October, which aims to address food insecurity and nutrition by connecting hunger relief professionals with nutritional professionals. Once together, they can more effectively collaborate to provide information that will help clients of hunger relief programs access more affordable, healthy food options.
 
The roughly US $5 billion in spending cuts to the federal food stamps program-- Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)-- are anticipated to increase the already heavy strain on local food banks. Food banks have become a primary provider of food to the hungry in the past several years due to the Great Recession and its ongoing impacts on low-income individuals and families. According to statistics about SNAP participants from Feeding America, the existing stipend available to SNAP participants are exhausted on average by the third week of the month, and “58 percent of food bank clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food banks for assistance at least 6 months out of the year."

The study by Yale's Rudd Center notes that some food banks who have not established the same hardline guidelines for donations cite as a reason the fear of alienating potential donors. Food bank who want to keep donation streams steady, at a time when demand for and reliance on food banks is higher than ever, feel pressured to accept unhealthy donations. Their imperative to keep donation rates consistent conflicts with their desire to provide healthier options for donation recipients.
 
Like the federal food stamps program, food banks were meant to serve as temporary relief for short-term lapses in household food security by cycling federal agricultural/food surpluses back to the nation's hungry. Food banks were not intended to provide either long-term sustenance or to serve as health watchdogs for their clients, though these roles have been relegated to them as they become the sole or primary source of food for many families.
 
Food bank managers, according to reports from National Public Radio and a University of Minnesota study, report commonly accepting food donations that contribute to high rates of obesity and other health problems common within low-income communities. However, the new health policies have made some progress toward decreasing junk food donations by focusing more on the nutritional quality of the donations rather than their gross weight (as they have in the past).

The UC Berkeley and Yale University studies suggest that many food banks feel the burden of providing quality nutrition in sufficient quantities to their clients is disproportionate to the resources available to them. However, the trends in those reports also reveal an encouraging shift from the long-standing view that the food banks only distribute food but are not necessarily responsible for also addressing health.

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