Nudging Nutritious Foods to Help Alleviate Summer Hunger

Children at a summer feeding program.
August 2, 2016
by Margaret Isham

Many families look forward to summer all year long, as children are out of school and parents have extra time to spend with them. But for many parents, summer can also mean the added stress of determining how they will provide their child with his or her next meal. During the school year, more than 22 million school-aged children receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch across the United States; yet in the summer months, approximately 4 out of 5 children lose access to those meals as public schools close. This gap serves as just one indicator of the increased need for food pantries in June, July and August.

To help alleviate summer hunger, food pantries throughout the nation are implementing a variety of strategies to encourage the families they serve to select the nutritious foods they need to lead active, healthy lives. One approach to encouraging healthy foods choices is known as a “nudge,” which may not be so obvious or what you expect.

Nudges are subtle changes to the environment that can indirectly influence the decisions people make about their food. A simple redesign – such as making whole wheat bread available at both the beginning and end of the food pantry line or switching from piling cabbage into a cardboard box to neatly arranging it in an attractive bin – has been proven to increase the amount of healthy food taken in a pantry setting. While nudges have been used in grocery store environments for years, they are just now beginning to make headway in food pantries as they are proven to be a low-cost method of encouraging consumers to make healthier food choices. In a recent study conducted by Cornell University and Feeding America, nudge interventions increased the number of people who took nutritious foods by 46 percent and increased the overall number of nutritious foods taken by 55 percent.

For pantries using nudges as a nutrition education strategy, the benefits are plentiful as nudges require little adjustments, few resources and little to no cost, unlike traditional nutrition education strategies such as classes that require extensive planning, commitments from pantry staff and visitors and additional physical space and money. Nudges are also advantageous from an operational perspective as highly perishable items can be nudged first to encourage uptake and decrease food waste.

While simple in nature, nudges are an effective strategy for increasing the distribution of healthy foods in a pantry setting. They can help enable more people facing hunger lead active, healthy lives.

Interested in learning more about nudge research? Visit

*Margaret Isham is a nutrition associate at Feeding America.

Tags: Innovative Solutions to Hunger , Produce & Nutrition

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