Healthy food initiatives in food banks

Food bank and food pantry healthy food initiatives combine hunger relief efforts with nutrition information and healthy eating opportunities for low income individuals and families. Such initiatives offer clients healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean proteins. 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, produce display stands, or point-of-decision prompts. Some food banks and food pantries 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 initiatives (HFBH-Foods to encourage). 

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased healthy food consumption

  • Increased food security

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved nutrition

  • Improved weight status

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that food banks and food pantries that use healthy food initiatives increase fruit and vegetable consumption, improve diet quality, and increase food security for clients more than traditional food banks and pantries (Martin 2012b*, Flynn 2013*). However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Food bank initiatives that provide nutrition education and recipe demonstrations may improve the variety of fruits and vegetables clients consume, as well as their food knowledge and home cooking habits (Flynn 2013*, Keller-Olaman 2005*). 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 costs (Flynn 2013*).

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 tips (Clarke 2011*). An Ohio-based study suggests that a food policy council’s support helps food pantries adopt a client choice model, improve the food environment, and develop marketing materials to promote healthy purchases, nutrition, and food security (Remley 2013*).

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 distribution (Handforth 2013*). 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 foods (Campbell 2013*).

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

Feeding America, a hunger-relief organization with over 200 member food banks nationwide, is one organization working nationally to increase healthy foods distributed through food banks (FA-Nutrition initiative). As of 2015, 67% of foods distributed through Feeding America member food banks were considered healthy “Foods to Encourage,” including 800 million pounds of produce (HFBH-Foods to encourage).

Farm to Food Bank, Farm to Food Pantry, and Farmers Ending Hunger programs are in place in many states, including Connecticut (CFB-FTFP), Georgia (GFBA-FTFB), Kentucky (KAFB-FTFB), Maryland (MFB-FTFB), Montana (CFC-MT FTFB), Oregon (FEH-Oregon), and Rhode Island (Farm Fresh RI-FTFP). Some states offer growers a tax credit for donations of excess produce to state-sponsored food banks, as in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon (NRDC-Gunders 2012), Iowa (IA DOR-FTFD tax credit), and Kentucky (KAFB-FTFB).

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 Tucson (CFBSA-Programs), Chester County Food Bank in Pennsylvania (CCFB-Programs), Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh, North Carolina (IFFS-Food bank), and Santa Barbara County Food Bank (SBCFB-Programs). Ample Harvest, a non-profit organization, helps home and community gardeners donate their excess produce to 7,470 food pantries and soup kitchens in all 50 states (Ample Harvest-Garden donations). University extension programs also support community and home garden donations of excess produce to food banks and food pantries, for example, the University of Maryland Extension’s Grow It Give It campaign (UMD Ext-GIGI).

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 Policy (CDC DNPAO-FPC). Several healthy food initiatives at food banks also include nutrition education and cooking demonstrations (HFBH-Nutrition education).

Implementation Resources

Northwest Harvest-Martin 2014 - Martin K, Morales T. Growing connections: A resource guide for farm-to-food bank strategies. Seattle: Northwest Harvest; 2014.

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.

Ecotrust FoodHub-FTFB resources - Ecotrust FoodHub. Knowledge Base: Farm to food bank (FTFB) tools, resources and thought leadership in regional food.

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

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Martin 2012b* - Martin K, Schuckerow M, O'Rourke C, Schmitz A. Changing the conversation about hunger: The process of developing Freshplace. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action. 2012;6(4):429-434.

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.

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.

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.

Remley 2013* - Remley DT, Kaiser ML, Osso T. A case study of promoting nutrition and long-term food security through choice pantry development. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 2013;8(3):324-336.

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.

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.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

FA-Nutrition initiative - Feeding America (FA). Nutrition initiative.

HFBH-Foods to encourage - Healthy Food Bank Hub (HFBH), Feeding America, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, National Dairy Council. Foods to encourage for healthy living.

CFB-FTFP - Connecticut Food Bank (CFB). Farm donations: Farm to food pantry (FTFP).

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

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

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

CFC-MT FTFB - Community Food Co-op (CFC). Southwest Montana Farm to Food Bank program (MT FTFB): Providing local food to those in need.

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

Farm Fresh RI-FTFP - Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Farm to food pantry (FTFP): Local farms fight local hunger effortlessly (almost).

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

UMD Ext-GIGI - University of Maryland Extension (UMD Ext). Grow it give it (GIGI): Sharing your harvest.

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).

HFBH-Nutrition education - Healthy Food Bank Hub (HFBH), Feeding America, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, National Dairy Council. Nutrition education strategies: nudges, workshops and classes, and train the trainer programs.

Date Last Updated