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Healthy Hunger Relief: Prioritizing Nutritious Food in the Charitable Food Sector

Produce distribution at a food bank Healthy Hunger Relief has been a cornerstone of PHA’s work toward good food for all. Since 2016 when the program was first started, we have been inspiring the charitable food sector to measure the nutritional content of its food inventory and prioritize healthier food options.

In 2021, as part of generous funding PHA received to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recruited 35 food banks across 13 states to integrate Healthy Eating Research (HER) Nutrition Guidelines into their standard operating practices by measuring the nutritional quality of their food products, or receive produce grants to directly impact vulnerable communities throughout the Midwest. HER is an initiative started by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. PHA worked with the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, and More Than Food Consulting to enable this over two years (2021 - 2023).

PHA asked food banks to evaluate at least 50% of their inventory; this goal was determined because of the significant resources required to change operating practices such as staff capacity, in-house expertise in nutrition, and access to the food inventory. Historically, food banks have measured their food inventory in pounds (quantity) instead of the nutrition (quality) of the food. Food banks adopting the HER standards places their work on a new level.

Each food item was first sorted into a food category and then assigned a ranking based on the amount of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar within the product.

HER Nutrition Guidelines have three standard rankings:

  1. Choose Often
  2. Choose Sometimes
  3. Choose Rarely

For this work, three additional rankings were offered:

  1. Not Yet Ranked - Items they have not evaluated
  2. Unranked - Items not included in the nutrition guidelines (e.g., baby formula, condiments)
  3. Assorted Not Ranked - Items without a nutrition label.

Below are the results, illustrating the percentage of HER rankings across all food banks that successfully evaluated at least 50% of their inventory.

The 31 food banks that completed HER Nutrition Guidelines had a combined inventory of over 111,900 products. PHA’s work with these food banks empowered them to go beyond the quantity of their food and examine the quality. Based on the data evaluating at least 50% of food inventories, these 31 food banks provided over 40% of nutritious, healthy foods.

The 32 food banks that received produce grants distributed over 11M servings of nutritious produce, a critical nutritional resource at the height of the pandemic. While this model was, and remains, an important resource for immediate needs, the adoption of the HER Nutrition Guidelines into regular food bank operations assures the longevity of this initiative, and that food banks will turn from an emphasis and focus on food security to consider and prioritize nutrition security.

The charitable food system is a critical resource for maintaining US public health. Food insecurity is highly tied to the prevalence of chronic, diet-related diseases. For instance, people experiencing food insecurity are two to three times more likely to have diabetes than people who are food secure. It is crucial that charitable food be nutritious, and support a healthy lifestyle.

Food banks, the epicenter of the charitable food system, are critical leaders in assuring that families, seniors, adults, and children facing food insecurity can receive food that is nutritious, high quality and culturally affirming.

As an organization committed to continuous learning and improvement, PHA has identified valuable learnings about what the future of our Healthy Hunger Relief needs to include, moving forward:

  • More direct counseling of food banks by PHA, or direct intervention by PHA to rank food inventories on behalf of food banks.
  • A step-by-step process guide to integrate into software and regular organizational oversight.
  • Better details for reporting requirements, on a more frequent basis.

Nationally, PHA is already seeing a shift in food bank practices. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, an original Healthy Hunger Relief partner has been using software to document their efforts, and this has persuaded food manufacturers to reformulate their products to meet the HER Nutrition Guidelines.

In some ways, Healthy Hunger Relief’s mission has come full circle. In other ways, this is just the beginning. The tide is turning, and this cohort is part of PHA’s vision to realize Good Food for All.

You can see a full list of this cohort of food banks here and access the full Healthy Hunger Relief Report here.

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