Coke or Carrots: Improvements in the Healthfulness of Food Charity

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Most food banks are improving the healthfulness of the food that they distribute, yet there is still a long way to go, according to a new study by the anti-hunger funder Mazon.  In “A Tipping Point,” Mazon researchers were able to get every food bank in the Feeding America network to fill out a survey about their food quality policies and procedures. They found that one third of the food distributed by food banks is produce, while one quarter fell into unhealthy food categories, such as salty snacks, pastries, candy and soda. Twenty-five food banks had policies not to distribute unhealthy foods, primarily soda and candy.

Because this groundbreaking report used Feeding America’s “Foods to Encourage” model, to assess food quality, it substantially undercounts the real amount of unhealthy food in the system. Foods to Encourage only counts unhealthy food as being in a specific category such as salty snacks or soda. It does not differentiate between healthy and unhealthy food within other categories, such as cereal. Under this system, all cereals would be counted as healthy, whether they are Grape Nuts or Cap’n Crunch. White rice, white pasta and white bread are considered equally healthful as whole wheat bread or brown rice. The Foods to Encourage framework similarly counts low nutrition (and heavy) veggies such as iceberg lettuce and potatoes the same as more nutritious and lighter spinach or kale.

A Tipping Point discovers that food banks refusing to accept donations of soda or other junk food have not jeopardized donations of healthy foods, as is commonly feared.  Eighty five percent of food banks with healthy food acceptance policies reported that their donations stayed the same or increased. Nonetheless, A Tipping Point does reveal that national donors are most turned off by the imposition of nutrition standards on their food donations.

At the national level, Feeding America has taken important steps in helping food banks to source more produce, such as through the creation of regional produce cooperatives. Reading between the lines, it is evident that Mazon does suggest that this national food bank trade association has historically favored the food industry’s waste disposal strategies over the health of the 46 million persons it serves, by failing to take key measures to staunch the flow of obesogenic and diabetes promoting foods into junk food saturated low income communities. It recommends that Feeding America should  launch a national donor education campaign to promote increased donations of healthy foods; establish a corporate donation policy with regards to food quality and healthfulness; allow food banks to refuse to accept any food from one of Feeding America’s corporate partners; and set nutritional standards to which food banks would be held accountable.  The ability of food banks to invert the power relations between themselves and their corporate donors remains to be seen. It is an important step for food banks to transcend their historic role as a morally acceptable outlet for corporate food waste.