Food Banks are Raising the Standard for Creating Standards

By: Paula E. Reichel

Most people do not get excited when they hear the words “standards” or “guidelines” – more than likely just the opposite. However, newly released standards intended to help Americans make better decisions about the food they feed themselves and their families has the Partnership for a Healthier America enthusiastic, and should have food and nutrition advocates feeling the same way.

Today, Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, announced the release of new nutrition guidelines for the charitable food assistance sector. These guidelines influence the quality of the food that reaches the 46.5 million people served by food banks, food pantries, and meal programs across the country. This network, which was started to address temporary, emergency needs, is now a permanent fixture in the lives of economically disadvantaged Americans.

While nutrition guidelines are not new, what’s cause for celebration is the potential for a shared system built by consensus that allows food banks to speak with one language among themselves, with their donors, and to the people they serve. This system allows organizations of many types and sizes across the country to set shared goals and to show improvement.

Anyone who has ever volunteered to sort food at a local food bank or pantry, can probably understand why this approach is needed. A 2018 study by Mazon found that unhealthy beverages and snack foods account for 25% of all food distributed through food banks. To put this statistic in human-centered terms – of the 3.6 billion meals reaching vulnerable individuals through the charitable food system, 900 million of those meals consist of candy, sugar sweetened beverages, desserts, and salty snacks.

The children and families served by food banks and pantries often lack access to affordable, healthy foods, and are more likely to live with obesity and chronic diet-related conditions. This reality drove PHA to create a network of food assistance partners around the country. Understanding the interconnectivity of hunger and health, PHA now partners with 23 PHA food assistance providers in 19 states and the District of Columbia to make hunger and health co-equal strategies. The first and most important step in that process is understanding the nutritional quality of the food passing through food banks and pantries. To date, our partners have committed to eradicting 12 million pounds of junk food from the system, while adding 66 million pounds of nutritious food, impacting the lives of over 5 million Americans.

The first food bank-focused nutrition ranking system emerged over a decade ago and a plethora of systems are currently being used by PHA’s partners and others. An expert panel, which included PHA, Feeding America, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and individual food banks, developed these new guidelines and examined some of the more commonly used systems as a part of making its recommendations. The final outcome balances the realities of food banking – lots of shelf stable and canned foods – with sound nutritional guidance. The report also calls out appropriate places for nutrition education. Canned beans can be washed to remove excess salt. Condiments add flavor when cooking, but some of them should only be used in moderation.

Imagine if other industries took a similar approach, or, even better, if everyone, across industries, worked from common definitions. We at PHA are extremely proud of our Healthier Product Criteria, but would gladly participate in a process that resulted in a shared standard. While it can be challenging to forge consensus, debate is healthy and builds buy-in. Even though it feels like we can’t seem to agree on much nowadays, this process proves that it is possible.

In the presence of a common standard, organizations race to the top not by setting the best definition of healthy, but by making changes in response to the definition. And it’s not hard to find consensus around the importance of greater access to healthier choices.