From Hunger to Health: How Charitable Food Assistance Can Help

Turning our attention from school nutrition to another important link in the food safety net, today we’re taking a look at the charitable food network; specifically, food banks and food pantries, and how improving the nutritional quality of the foods that they distribute can have a positive impact on public health.

We recently sat down with Elizabeth Campbell. Liz is a registered dietitian, and a consultant with Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom who worked with the UC Berkeley Center for Weight and Health team for almost ten years on the question of nutrition quality in the charitable food network. Campbell sent us the video embedded, below, entitled: “From Hunger to Health: How Charitable Food Assistance Can Help.” The video illustrates the impact of access to fresh, nutritious food through food banks and food panties—the charitable food network—on client health.


“Our work started with a grant from The California Endowment, and another grant from the Food Bank of Central New York, where we did two different studies,” explained Campbell. “With TCE we worked with California food banks and food pantries, talking about what could be done to allow food banks to focus more on nutrition. We learned a lot about nutrition education, we talked about sourcing and food availability, and organizational change; a need to shift the focus from moving food to moving nutritious food through the system.”

At the same time, Campbell was working with the Food Bank of Central New York (FBCNY), which had stopped accepting candy and soda donations—the first food bank in the country to do so. “It was a business decision, not a belief that there is no room in the diet for soda or candy,” she explained. “As an organization, the desire to focus on hunger and health led them to decide to focus on procuring healthier foods.” In discussions surrounding whether or not to accept soda and candy, the FBCNY staff and Campbell realized that if they were going to deliver the types of foods clients want, they should ask clients about their priorities and preferences—so they did. A research study with FBCNY clients revealed that clients preferred to receive lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The logical reasoning is that these are among the most expensive items on the grocery list, and they are items to which low-income folks have less access,” said Campbell. “It certainly justifies the idea that nutrition-focused food banking is client-focused food banking, because we really are giving clients what they want.”

The work didn’t end there. After receiving funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the UC Berkeley Center for Weight and Health did a survey with the goal of increasing understanding of the national picture for nutrition and food banking. At the same time, Campbell and her colleagues worked with six food banks in California to learn more about their clients’ priorities.

“That was more of a case study, where we looked at food bank inventory and interviewed clients. We found that clients in the California case study had similar responses to the New York study—the priority was for receiving fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean meats.” Feeding America’s most recent national hunger study also reflected clients’ desires for healthy, nutritious food.

“There is this growing body of evidence that nutrition-focused food banking is also addressing the needs and desires of our clients.”

The UC Berkeley team partnered with MAZON and Kaiser Permanente to do more in-depth outreach with food banks. “We wanted to figure out what needed to be done so food banks could focus more on the nutrition,” explained Campbell. “Development of nutrition policies within food banks is a great way to focus on the need for organizational change—the engagement of stakeholders on why hunger and health are important, why client health is affected by the types of foods to which they have access. It’s a great way to create change within an organization, and then at the end have a guiding document of how to address the improvement of nutritional quality.”

Compiling the research and data led to the creation of a free online course through UC Berkeley. Enrollment for the next session of “Developing Food Bank Nutrition Policy to Procure Healthful Food” will be on July 6, 2015, and the course will begin on September 14, 2015.

The first online course finished up its run recently, and Campbell was encouraged by the positive response. “This course is the culmination of ten years of gathering information and finding out what technical assistance was needed. Now we have these wonderful resources and tools available so anyone can access them.”

Delivering higher-quality nutrition to at-risk populations makes an impact, not just on that individual but on the community; it truly is an issue of public health, said Campbell.

“A growing body of research shows that low-income people, food-insecure folks who make up the clientele of the charitable food network, are at a greater risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure—two things that are very directly related to quality of diet,” explained Campbell. “Focusing on nutrition can help manage a disease, but thinking more broadly these foods can help prevent disease in the first place.” And as more and more Americans begin to rely on the charitable food network, the potential savings—in medical care, hospital bills, medications—become substantial.

Health and hunger aren’t just problems for the professionals—change will take a community effort, whether you’re a school nutrition professional, a food bank director, or a soup kitchen volunteer. “I want people outside of the charitable food network to better understand the connection between hunger and health,” said Campbell. “There are pieces here that are relevant for all kinds of different stakeholders, and if you watch our video or take our online course, you’ll take away something that will help you address hunger and health in your community.”

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