Make the healthy choice the easy choice at food pantries—that’s a key goal for Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC's Nutrition Services team.
Second Harvest is piloting an assessment tool to help its partner food assistance programs improve their nutrition environment for families coming to them for food assistance. The Nutrition Environment Food Pantry Assessment Tool (NEFPAT), created by University of Illinois Extension in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Science, guides food pantries to add no-cost or low-cost strategies that make the nutritious choice the easy choice, explained Sheri Cordell, Second Harvest's Policy, Systems, and Environmental Project Manager.
NEFPAT is a tool, not a judgement, and it does not impact food allotments from Second Harvest. By using the tool to make improvements that promote health, pantries earn “bragging rights” when they receive bronze, silver or gold certification levels, Cordell said.
The voluntary NEFPAT assessment is flexible and offers a variety of affordable strategies that can be used by the wide range of pantries served by Second Harvest.
“Feedback so far has been positive,” said Cordell. “The NEFPAT will be a tool in a greater toolkit for Second Harvest's partner pantries to use, so they can make small changes to their pantry environment that encourage healthy choices/behaviors/habits.”
Examples of strategies include “nudges,” such as product placement, recipes that show clients to know how to prepare/cook items they might not be familiar with, food demos, and ordering/carrying certain products, Cordell said.
“The pilot has been successful both on the pantry side and Second Harvest staff side,” Cordell said. “It was very rewarding to hear positive feedback consistently, and enthusiastically.”
The University of Illinois provided NEFPAT information for free, and “the University of Illinois staff have been an incredibly helpful resource throughout the pilot,” she said. Some pantries may consider transitioning to a “client choice” pantry, suggested by NEFPAT, where food insecure individuals select food items they know their families will eat, which may be based on dietary restrictions due to health conditions, cultural food preferences, or religious practices.
Client choice pantries may consider placing nutritious food at eye level or adding signage to shelves to highlight the benefits of no-salt canned vegetables and canned fruit in juice instead of syrup. Pantries may include recipes to teach clients how to use an item they may not be accustomed to eating, which could decrease potential waste.
Pantries that cannot implement the client choice model due to high client volume or lack of space have other options to boost the NEFPAT score. For example, Second Harvest can assist pantries with designing a nutrition policy to send to potential food donors to highlight healthier options they prefer to provide to clients, Cordell said.
SHFB shares materials that promote “eating a rainbow,” to raise awareness of how to make healthy food choices and the USDA “MyPlate” signs that show proportions of food categories in a healthy diet.
The 150-member Lutheran Church of Our Father in Greensboro houses its David Wilson Food Pantry in its “God’s Garage,” an auto repair shop-turned philanthropic outpost. Pre-COVID, the pantry had been a client choice pantry, however due to exponential growth during the pandemic, it transitioned to a drive-through pantry to meet demand.
“In early 2019, people started hearing about it,” said Mark Failla, a volunteer with The David Wilson Food Pantry. “We went from 15 to 20 visitors a month to as high as 200 visitors a month. In 2020, we serviced 1,864 households—3,999 individuals—and distributed 104,000 pounds of food.”
In the pilot project, a Food Bank Nutrition Educator assessed the pantry based on NEFPAT criteria and provided resources to make no-cost or low-cost changes that would improve the nutrition environment in the pantry. The Pantry has added educational pamphlets to help clients learn how to choose healthier options, and they share recipes. The congregation and other supporters are increasing donations of low-salt, low-sugar options. Volunteers at the David Wilson Pantry plan to explore a hybrid pantry model.
“It’s pointed out things to think about that we can do to enhance the quality of the program,” Failla said.
Scott Bowen, SHFB Regional Partnership Manager for Forsyth and Yadkin Counties, encouraged Christ’s Beloved Community, which serves Southside Winston-Salem, to pilot NEFPAT in its bilingual food pantry.
“They have appreciated how the program has had them look at how they can restructure the distribution to a client choice program, … the guidance of how to make it work in their space,” Bowen said.
CBC’s pantry, shares recipes for chickpeas and other items.
“They’ve been able to help us with menus, they provide low sodium peanut butter, and the nutrition department is always available,” said Angelica Espinal, Missioner for Community Engagement at CBC. The Food Bank Nutrition Educator even did a fruit drink demonstration and gave attendees a sample—and the recipe.
CBC holds a healthcare clinic once a month. Two church members, who are nurses, check blood pressures, insulin levels for diabetes, prescriptions, and nutritional needs for individuals who need assistance. CBC is looking forward to partnering with the Food Bank this fall in its Farm Fresh Nourish! program, in which the Food Bank supports local farmers by purchasing local produce that pantries provide to clients. The program includes educating clients about how healthy eating can improve diet-related conditions such as pre-diabetes, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
“I love that we have the partnership with Second Harvest,” Espinal said.