Leading Health Experts Release Guidelines to Increase Access to Healthy Food and Beverages in Food Banks

New guidelines offer the charitable food system an evidence-based set of nutrition standards tailored to the specific needs of food banks and food pantries

March 2, 2020

Today, leading health experts released a comprehensive set of evidence-based guidelines to help food banks and food pantries, collectively known as the charitable food system, improve the nutritional quality of the items they provide to individuals and families. The guidelines focus on increasing access to healthier food choices, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean proteins, with an easy-to-understand system that organizes and ranks products according to the amounts of saturated fat, sodium and added sugar they contain. 

“Feeding America is committed to distributing nutritious food through 200 member food banks that serve over 40 million people in the United States each year,” said Gita Rampersad, JD, MHA, Vice President of Healthcare Partnerships and Nutrition at Feeding America. “These guidelines are an important step forward to support food banks, build the evidence base for sourcing and distributing nutritious food, and help to improve the overall health and wellbeing of the people we serve.”

The guidelines were developed as part of an expert panel made up of hunger, nutrition, food bank and food policy experts, which was convened by Healthy Eating Research (HER), a leading national nutrition research program based at Duke University and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The panel reviewed other nutrition guidelines used by the charitable food system and created a set of recommendations tailored to the unique needs and realities of food banks and food pantries. This includes considerations such as the increased cost of providing healthier foods, limited in-house expertise in nutrition including a reliance on volunteers and limited access to cold storage for perishable items.   

The guidelines recommend dividing food products into 11 distinct food and beverage categories: fruits and vegetables, grains, protein, dairy, non-dairy alternatives, beverages, mixed dishes, processed and packaged snacks, desserts, condiments and cooking staples, and other miscellaneous items. They then suggest a three-tiered system – “choose often,” “choose sometimes” and “choose rarely” with stoplight symbols of “green,” “yellow” and “red.” A product is assigned a tier based on the quantities of saturated fat, sodium and added sugar it contains, with the goal of limiting the consumption of these nutrients.

“Healthy food and beverage consumption is essential to building a healthy lifestyle,” said Mary Story, PhD RD, Program Director of Healthy Eating Research and Professor at Duke University. “By providing the charitable food system with a clear set of recommendations to increase their selection of healthy food items, we are helping to ensure that families and individuals who depend on their local food banks and pantries to get enough to eat can more easily access healthier products.”

Adults, children and families who lack consistent access to enough nutritious foods they need to live a healthy and active life—an experience referred to as being food insecure—often rely on the charitable food system, which distributes billions of pounds of food annually, to help meet their food needs. According to the latest data, approximately one in nine households in the United States experience food insecurity. Food-insecure families face multiple barriers in accessing nutritious foods and beverages, and as a result, these individuals may experience greater risk of developing or exacerbating diet-related health problems, including obesity and diabetes. 

The number of households experiencing food insecurity is likely to increase due to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) various proposed and final rules to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would make millions of people ineligible for the program. Implementation of the three rules would result in a loss of more than 2.4 billion meals from families and individuals. Without SNAP food assistance benefits, people will turn to food banks and pantries more often to help make up for the loss in access to food.

Additionally, in January, USDA issued proposed rollbacks to school meal nutrition standards that would allow schools to serve foods high in calories, saturated fat or sodium more often, while lowering the amount of fruit and decreasing the variety of vegetables in meals. This is despite USDA’s own research showing that the updated standards have significantly improved the nutritional content of school meals and the evidence showing the connection between healthy food consumption and children’s academic success. With many children from food-insecure households participating in the school breakfast and lunch program, the need for access to healthy food through other channels, such as food banks and pantries, will likely grow if the changes are implemented. 

The full report, “Healthy Eating Research Nutrition Guidelines for the Charitable Food System,” and accompanying recommendations are being released today at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, DC. They can also be accessed at https://healthyeatingresearch.org/.


About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve health and health care. We are striving to build a national Culture of Health that will enable all to live longer, healthier lives now and for generations to come. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.


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About Feeding America

Feeding America® is the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States. Through a network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and over 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programs, we helped provide 5.2 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need last year. Feeding America also supports programs that prevent food waste and improve food security among the people we serve; brings attention to the social and systemic barriers that contribute to food insecurity in our nation; and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry. Visit www.feedingamerica.org, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

About Healthy Eating Research

Healthy Eating Research is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program supports research on policy, systems, and environmental change strategies with strong potential to promote the health and well-being of children, and that advance health equity in the areas of nutrition, nutritional disparities, and food security. For more information, visit www.healthyeatingresearch.org.