Healthy food initiatives in food pantries

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Food pantry and food bank healthy food initiatives combine hunger relief efforts with nutrition information and healthy eating opportunities for individuals and families with low incomes. Such initiatives offer clients healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean proteins, and can implement client choice models. Initiatives can include fruit and vegetable gleaning programs, farm Plant-a-Row efforts, and garden donations. Healthy food initiatives can also modify the food environment via efforts such as on-site cooking demonstrations and recipe tastings, healthy meal kits, featured product placements, produce display stands, or point-of-decision prompts. Some food pantries and food banks establish partnerships with health and nutrition professionals to offer screening for food insecurity and medical conditions (e.g., diabetes), provide nutrition and health education, and health care support services as part of their healthy food initiatives1, 2.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased healthy food consumption

  • Increased food security

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Improved nutrition

  • Improved weight status

  • Reduced emissions

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that food pantries and food banks that use healthy food initiatives increase fruit and vegetable consumption, improve diet quality, and increase food security for clients more than traditional food pantries and banks3, 4, 5. Available evidence associates such initiatives with a significant increase in fresh fruit and vegetable distribution through food pantries6, and when implemented as intended, with improved quality of foods available and selected by pantry clients7. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects especially over the long-term3.

Food pantry initiatives that provide nutrition education and recipe demonstrations can increase the variety of fruits and vegetables and the amount of produce clients consume, and can improve nutrition knowledge, home cooking skills and habits, and food security status3, 8, 9. In a Rhode Island-based study, food pantry clients participating in a plant-based cooking and nutrition education program and preparing these meatless recipes at home 2-3 meals per week, improved weight status and reduced total food costs8. In a rural Missouri case study, healthy food initiatives at food pantries are associated with improved healthy food access and food choices, as well as increased gardening knowledge, support, and resources10. Program evaluations of comprehensive healthy food initiatives that include a client choice model with a variety of featured healthy food options, connections to community resources and services, a respectful and welcoming environment, and on site opportunities for clients to build skills are associated with significant improvements in food security, self-sufficiency, and diet quality over time5.

Food banks and pantries with healthy food initiatives that use client choice models for food selection and tailor messaging, recipes, and food tips for their clients appear to have greater effects on healthy eating decisions and vegetable use than generic messaging and food tips11. One Utah-based study suggests food pantry healthy food nudge programs may improve dietary choices, with the largest effects reported among Hispanic survey respondents12. A Connecticut-based study suggests ingredient bundles with recipe tastings may increase the likelihood that food pantry clients select healthier food options more than tastings alone13. Healthy food display interventions can help food pantry clients select healthier food items3 and may improve diets among people who are food insecure4.

Healthy food initiatives in food pantries that include gleaning, farm, or garden donations can reduce waste and increase the availability of local, seasonal produce for participants, which may reduce emissions from fossil fuels used to produce, process, and transport food141516, 17, 18. Healthy food initiatives in food pantries may also reduce the energy intensity of an individual’s diet if more plant-based foods are consumed in place of animal products14.

Successful healthy food initiatives are most often found in food pantries or food banks that have written nutrition guidelines, client choice distribution models, and adequate refrigerator storage19. Building a healthier food inventory, enhancing partner agency access, storage, and distribution capacity for fresh foods, developing nutrition education, and expanding community partnerships and settings for healthy food distribution are key components for healthy food initiatives at food banks20. Establishing strong nutrition policies at food banks is a suggested strategy to improve the nutritional quality of food distributed; however, such changes have the potential to alter relationships with existing donors, possibly reducing the total amount of food available for distribution21. Interviews with food bank and food pantry personnel suggest that other challenges to adopting healthy food initiatives include the procurement, handling, and monitoring of large quantities of perishable foods22, as well as limited staffing and other resources3. Such interviews also suggest food pantry clients may benefit from nonjudgmental nutrition guidance; however, some clients may have other reasons not to choose healthy foods, for example, lack of cooking equipment or transportation challenges23.

The cost of healthy food initiatives varies; some are very low cost and relatively straightforward to implement, such as healthy food display interventions4.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated likely to decrease disparities.
Implementation Examples

Feeding America, a hunger-relief organization with over 200 member food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs nationwide, is one organization working nationally to increase healthy foods distributed through food banks24. As of 2020, 69% of foods distributed through Feeding America member food banks were considered healthy and align with USDA nutritional guidelines. Feeding America also operates mobile food pantries to bring healthy foods to families in underserved areas and the Produce Matchmaker program that connects growers directly with food banks to donate surplus, fresh produce1. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Feeding America’s network of food banks has implemented many new drive-through and outdoor food distribution locations, delivered emergency food boxes, and worked with many schools and school districts to provide grab-and-go cold meals for children and families while schools are closed24.

Farm to Food Bank, Farm to Food Pantry, and Farmers Ending Hunger programs are in place in many states, including Connecticut25, Georgia26, Kentucky27, Maryland28, Oregon29, and Rhode Island30. Some states offer growers a tax credit for donations of excess produce to state-sponsored food banks, as in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon31, Iowa32, and Kentucky27.

Many food banks use farming, gardening, gleaning, and other healthy food programs to procure fresh produce and support healthy eating for their clients, as in Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona in Tucson33, Chester County Food Bank in Pennsylvania34, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh, North Carolina35, and Santa Barbara County Food Bank36. Ample Harvest, a non-profit organization, helps home and community gardeners donate their excess produce to over 8,700 food pantries in all 50 states37. The Missouri Department of Agriculture supports the Grow & Give program part of the 10,000 Garden Challenge, which encourages home and community gardens to donate a portion of their produce to local food banks and pantries38.

Many food pantries have implemented more comprehensive healthy food initiatives. For example, the More Than Food initiative supports systems change in the charitable food network and builds capacity for food banks and food pantries to offer client choice, connections with community services, supports to reach their goals, and a welcoming environment39. The Fresh Start program at Kelly Memorial Food Pantry in El Paso, Texas also provides healthy food assistance, health and well-being classes, and case management services to address the root causes of hunger and overcome barriers to personal and financial independence40. The Whole Body Approach to Wellness (WBA) program, developed through a collaboration between Northern Illinois Food Bank and Northern Illinois University, is a health promotion, nondiet program to help food pantry clients develop a healthy relationship with food and fitness, while respecting body, shape, and size diversity and focusing on a holistic approach to wellness and behavioral outcomes. Participants who are at risk for or already diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes also receive additional fresh produce as part of the program41.

To increase the amount of healthy foods available, statewide food policy councils can require food banks to spend a portion of funds on fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat milk, for example, the New York State Council on Food Policy42.

Implementation Resources

Ample Harvest-Garden donations - Ample Harvest. Find a local pantry if you have garden surplus you want to donate.

ChangeLab-Banking on health - ChangeLab Solutions. Banking on health: Improving healthy beverage & nutrition standards in food banks.

CHD-Healthy food planning 2005 - Columbus Health Department (CHD). Improving access to healthy food: A community planning tool. 2005.

SRTSNP-Safe routes to healthy foods - Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP). Healthy communities: Safe routes to healthy foods.

ISU-Food and sustainability resources - Iowa State University (ISU), Sustainable Food Processing Alliance. Online resources for food and sustainability.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 FA-Nutrition initiative - Feeding America (FA). Healthy communities need healthy foods.

2 Bush-Kaufman 2019 - Bush-Kaufman A, Barale K, Walsh M, Sero R. In-depth qualitative interviews to explore healthy environment strategies in food pantries in the western United States. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2019;119(10):1632-1643.

3 An 2019 - An R, Wang J, Liu J, et al. A systematic review of food pantry-based interventions in the USA. Public Health Nutrition. 2019;22(9):1704-1716.

4 Grabow 2020 - Grabow KN, Schumacher J, Banning J, Barnes JL. Highlighting healthy options in a food pantry setting: A pilot study. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. 2020;48(3):263-275.

5 Cochrane-Martin 2018 - Martin A, Booth JN, Laird Y, et al. Physical activity, diet and other behavioural interventions for improving cognition and school achievement in children and adolescents with obesity or overweight. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2018;(3):CD009728.

6 Long 2019 - Long CR, Rowland B, McElfish PA. Intervention to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables among Arkansas food pantry clients. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2019;16(1):1-7.

7 Caspi 2019 - Caspi CE, Canterbury M, Carlson S, et al. A behavioural economics approach to improving healthy food selection among food pantry clients. Public Health Nutrition. 2019;22(12):2303-2313.

8 Flynn 2013 - Flynn MM, Reinert S, Schiff AR. A six-week cooking program of plant-based recipes improves food security, body weight, and food purchases for food pantry clients. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 2013;8(1):73-84.

9 Keller-Olaman 2005 - Keller-Olaman SJ, Edwards V, Elliott SJ. Evaluating a food bank recipe-tasting program. Canadian Journal of Diabetic Practice and Research. 2005;66(3):183-186.

10 Chapman 2017 - Chapman D. Healthy food access in Missouri food pantries through evidence-based intervention. Journal of Human Sciences and Extension. 2017;5(1):141-157.

11 Clarke 2011 - Clarke P, Evans SH, Hovy EH. Indigenous message tailoring increases consumption of fresh vegetables by clients of community pantries. Health Communication. 2011;26(6):571-582.

12 Coombs 2020 - Coombs C, Savoie-Roskos MR, LeBlanc H, Gast J, Hendrickson J. Nudging urban food pantry users in Utah toward healthier choices. Health Promotion Practice. 2020:1-7.

13 Stein 2019 - Stein EC, Stowers KC, McCabe ML, White MA, Schwartz MB. Ingredient bundles and recipe tastings in food pantries: A pilot study to increase the selection of healthy foods. Public Health Nutrition. 2019;22(9):1717-1722.

14 Ringling 2020 - Ringling KM, Marquart LF. Intersection of diet, health, and environment: Land grant universities’ role in creating platforms for sustainable food systems. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. 2020;4(70).

15 FAO-Food waste - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food wastage footprint & climate change.

16 Hic 2016 - Hic C, Pradhan P, Rybski D, Kropp JP. Food surplus and its climate burdens. Environmental Science and Technology. 2016;50(8):4269-4277.

17 SSSA-McIvor 2017 - McIvor K. Soils in the city: Community gardens. Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). 2017.

18 CCAFS-Campbell 2012 - Campbell B. Is eating local good for the climate? Thinking beyond food miles. Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), CGIAR Research Programs. 2012.

19 Long 2020 - Long CR, Narcisse MR, Rowland B, et al. Written nutrition guidelines, client choice distribution, and adequate refrigerator storage are positively associated with increased offerings of Feeding America’s detailed Foods to Encourage (F2E) in a large sample of Arkansas food pantries. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2020;120(5):792-803.e5.

20 Wetherill 2019 - Wetherill MS, White KC, Seligman HK. Nutrition-focused food banking in the United States: A qualitative study of healthy food distribution initiatives. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2019;119(10):1653-1665.

21 Handforth 2013 - Handforth B, Hennik M, Schwartz MB. A qualitative study of nutrition-based initiatives at selected food banks in the Feeding America network. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013;113(3):411-415.

22 Campbell 2013 - Campbell EC, Ross M, Webb KL. Improving the nutritional quality of emergency food: A study of food bank organizational culture, capacity, and practices. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 2013;8(3):261-280.

23 Cooksey-Stowers 2018 - Cooksey-Stowers K, Read M, Wolff M, et al. Food pantry staff attitudes about using a nutrition rating system to guide client choice. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 2018;14(1-2).

24 FA-Who we are - Feeding America (FA), Hunger and Health. Who we are and our COVID 19 response.

25 CFB-Farm donations - Connecticut Food Bank (CFB). Farm donations.

26 GFBA-FTFB - Georgia Food Bank Association (GFBA). Farm to food bank program (FTFB): Georgia farmers feeding Georgia families.

27 KAFB-FTFB - Kentucky Association of Food Banks (KAFB). Farms to food banks (FTFB).

28 MFB-FTFB - Maryland Food Bank (MFB). Farm to food bank (FTFB).

29 FEH-Oregon - Farmers Ending Hunger (FEH). How Farmers Ending Hunger works and the Oregon Food Bank partnership.

30 RI Food Bank-Community farms - Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Community farms growing food for the food bank.

31 NRDC-Gunders 2012 - Gunders D. Wasted: How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. New York City: National Resources Defense Council; 2012.

32 IA DOR-FTFD tax credit - Iowa Department of Revenue (IA DOR). Farm to food donation (FTFD) tax credit.

33 CFBSA-Programs - Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona (CFBSA). Programs and services include home and community gardening, farmers' markets, gleaning, education, and advocacy.

34 CCFB-Programs - Chester County Food Bank (CCFB). Food bank programs include gardening kits, gleaning, farming, nutrition education, and healthy cooking classes.

35 IFFS-Food bank - Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (IFFS). A food bank pioneering innovative, transformative solutions to end hunger: We feed, we teach, we grow.

36 SBCFB-Programs - Santa Barbara County Food Bank (SBCFB). Programs moving the community from hunger into health.

37 Ample Harvest-Garden donations - Ample Harvest. Find a local pantry if you have garden surplus you want to donate.

38 MDA-Grow and give 2011 - Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA). 10,000 Garden Challenge joins forces with Missouri's food banks to 'Grow & Give.' News Release. 2011.

39 More Than Food - More Than Food. Because it takes more than food to end hunger.

40 Fresh Start - Fresh Start. Fresh Start program at Kelly Memorial Food Pantry in El Paso, Texas.

41 NIFB-WBA - Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB), Feeding America. Health & nutrition blog: Whole Body Approach to Wellness (WBA) program.

42 CDC DNPAO-FPC - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Division of Nutrition Physical Activity and Obesity. DNPAO state program highlights: Food policy councils (FPC).