When staff at Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank began our efforts to improve the nutritional quality of the food we distribute, we developed a policy to support and guide our efforts. This policy is for purchased food only as that is the product category over which we had the most control, and for which we could make a strong argument for the use of the Food Bank’s funds. The policy was a key to our success.
To present our arguments for improving the nutrient quality of our food, we developed the following ‘white paper’ in 2003. It was presented to the Food Bank’s executive team, and with their approval to the Board of Directors. Once we had the policy in place we were able to use the Choose Healthy Options Program to dramatically increase the distribution of healthy food.
Development of a NutritionPolicy
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB) has recently undertaken an important initiative that will bring healthier food options to its consumers. This document describes the rationale for this initiative, as well as details its policy and procedural changes.
Background & Rationale
In the 1980’s the need for “emergency food” skyrocketed because of the poor economy and the cutting of the safety net by the Reagan Administration. At that time GPCFB did an excellent job of marshalling quantities of food – through food drives, donations from the food industry and more –to fill the empty cupboards of people in need.
Twenty years later this food “emergency” has evolved into a chronic food shortage for approximately 10% of the Allegheny County population who depend on help from the Food Bank over months or years. When people need food bank food for only a few months of their lifetime, quality is less important than quantity. When it becomes a consistent need, year after year, the issue of food quality must be addressed.
In 2001 GPCFB commissioned a study to assess the needs of this new long-term consumer group as part of its nutrition programming. The study found that 25% of African-American clients had high blood pressure and more than 25% of African-American clients had arthritis. 25% of Caucasian clients over the age of 59 had high cholesterol. We know that a high quality diet is important for controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, and that weight loss can lower blood pressure and cholesterol and decrease the pain of arthritis. Our clients are perceptive about their needs as well: 40% to 50% reported wanting to learn how to reduce salt and fat intake, reduce blood cholesterol levels and increase fiber, calcium and iron intakes. 90% of the clients said they were willing to try new foods.
It is also important to note that about 33% of Food Bank clients are children. Over 23% of WIC children (under 5 years old) in Allegheny County who are enrolled have obesity risk factors. In adults and children the highest rates of obesity are in the low-income population. Being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. We are now seeing more overweight teens who have already developed “adult” diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Being overweight with diabetes in one’s teens increases the risk for a heart attack, failing vision or amputations during one’s thirties.
Obesity and its health consequences are creating enormous economic risks for our country. Consequently, national, state and local initiatives are refocusing to tackle this issue. The School Lunch Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program mandate that menus follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and that meals not exceed 30% calories from fat. The WIC Program now provides counseling about obesity prevention and treatment. The Food Bank’s federally funded Nutrition Education Program (NEP) teaches low-income adults and children how to plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks. In fact, this education is consistent with the wishes identified in the 2001 needs assessment.
Unfortunately, the choices that our clients have at their food pantries are not always consistent with this education. We are giving consumers a mixed message when we teach about making healthy food choices but then do not make these foods available to them.
Policy & Implementation
To erase this disconnect between what we tell people about food and health and what they see at their food pantry, GPCFB has developed CHOP™–Choose Healthy Options Program – a cutting edge solution guiding food purchasing by the Food Bank and food ordering by the pantries.
There are two components to CHOP™. First, there is an ongoing nutrition education component that shares the “why’s” and “how’s” of good nutrition with pantry clients. This educational component will be discussed at a separate time.
The second strategy, which is our focus in this report, is the recently developed food availability component –the supply side of what food is provided at the food pantry. To assure that a sufficient variety of foods available to food pantry clients are consistent with healthy nutrition practices, Food Bank management, with approval from the Board, has adopted this policy:
With its discretionary monies to purchase product through the State Food Purchase Program and the Wholesale Buying Program, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank will purchase nutritious foods (defined by meeting Nutrition Tab criteria of “1” and “2”) in order to provide healthy choices to agencies and to the supply side of the Choose Healthy Options Program.
A Nutrition Tab Data System, developed by the Food Bank’s nutrition staff, ranks foods according to their nutritional value (with “1” being most nutritious). This system will be used not only to guide food purchases using a food bank’s discretionary funds, but can also measure outcomes of nutrition education efforts at the pantry level.
Obviously, the nutrition tab system cannot drive the choices of all foods obtained by the food bank. Donated foods will continue to be gratefully received by the Food Bank and distributed to member agencies regardless of nutritional value. Moreover, because the average pantry client receives about five days worth of food from the pantry each month, the majority of the food the household consumes remains at the discretion of the household and dictated by personal choice, not the Nutrition Tab System.
Instituting any new procedure takes time, patience and education. Currently 50% of the foods purchased with discretionary funds meet the “nutritious” criteria. Our goal is to have 65% of discretionary food meet those criteria by December 2004, 75% by December 2005 and 80% by December 2006. At that time, the progress towards these goals will be reviewed and we will evaluate the feasibility of going beyond 80%. Also, the cost and quantity of food supplied under the State Food Purchase Program and the Wholesale Buying Program will be closely monitored to avoid any negative impact.
As the government and private industries work on their levels to promote healthy eating and address the obesity epidemic and the disease it brings, GPCFB is leading the charge in the food-banking arena. Implementing the Choose Healthy Options Program and ordering foods based on their nutritional value enables GPCFB to offer clients the nutritious foods they need and want.