Food banks and food shelves: The new frontier for healthy food?

More and more Minnesotans are turning to food shelves to help meet their daily food needs. In 2012, Minnesotans visited food shelves more than three million times, according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota. With strong links between hunger and obesity, food shelves and their distribution depots, food banks are discovering ways to infuse healthier food options into the emergency food shelf system. “Food shelves are concerned about distributing food that’s healthy, not just getting food out the door,” says Sara Nelson-Pallmeyer, the director of Minnesota FoodShare. “The people that come to food shelves deserve healthy food just like everyone else.”


Because food banks engage in wholesale purchasing of food for distribution to food shelves, they often play a critical role in determining the types of food available to food shelf clients. To learn more about how food banks influence healthy food options, we sat down with Anita Berg, director of programs at the Emergency Foodshelf Network (EFN), to discover EFN’s strategies.

Minnesota Food Charter:  What efforts has the Emergency Foodshelf Network made to increase the availability of healthy food at food shelves?
Anita Berg: It’s important for food banks to understand the nutritional value of the foods they source. At EFN, we have a registered dietitian on staff to advise us and serve as a resource for our food shelf partners. When it comes to packaged goods and staples, we make a concerted effort to make better buying choices by focusing on foods low in sodium, trans-fats and sugar. We also use partnerships to drive innovative solutions for providing free produce, like purchasing locally-grown produce from CSA (community supported agriculture) farms or rescuing surplus produce from a food bank in Arizona. We want to make it seamless for food shelves to make healthy food choices when they order from us.


Food Charter: And what’s the biggest challenge in doing that?
Berg: The cost of food. It is as much an issue for us as it is for the consumer. Healthy food is more expensive—even when buying in large quantities. The cost for basic food staples continues to rise. Also, limited freezer and cooler storage at food shelves make storing and providing fresh and frozen produce more challenging.

Food Charter: How does EFN plan on strengthening these efforts to make healthy food more widely available at food shelves?
Berg: We know there is a demand for healthy food, especially fresh produce. Currently, we are exploring additional partnerships for off-season sources to meet that demand. We are also working on providing nutrition ratings for our food stock and developing strategies for merchandising healthy options at food shelves to increase the likelihood of healthy choices by all food shelf clients.


What are your thoughts about the role food shelves and food banks can play in increasing the availability of healthy food for low-income Minnesotans? Are there other ways food shelves and food banks can contribute even more to improve the health of Minnesotans? Share your thoughts and ideas.