Foods and Drinks Available from Urban Food Pantries: Nutritional Quality by Item Type, Sourcing, and Distribution Method

Alexander D Bryan, Zoë A Ginsburg, Ellen B Rubinstein, Hilary J Frankel, Andrew R Maroko, Clyde B Schechter, Kristen Cooksey Stowers, Sean C Lucan
Journal of Community Health 2018 November 17
The overall nutritional quality of foods/drinks available at urban food pantries is not well established. In a study of 50 pantries listed as operating in the Bronx, NY, data on food/drink type (fresh, shelf-stable, refrigerated/frozen) came from direct observation. Data on food/drink sourcing (food bank or other) and distribution (prefilled bag vs. client choice for a given client's position in line) came from semi-structured interviews with pantry workers. Overall nutritional quality was determined using NuVal® scores (range 1-100; higher score indicates higher nutritional quality). Twenty-nine pantries offered zero nutrition at listed times (actually being closed or having no food/drinks in stock). Of the 21 pantries that were open as listed and had foods/drinks to offer, 12 distributed items in prefilled bags (traditional pantries), 9 allowed for client choice. Mean NuVal® scores were higher for foods/drinks available from client-choice pantries than traditional pantries (69.3 vs. 57.4), driven mostly by sourcing fresh items (at 28.3% of client-choice pantries vs. 4.8% of traditional pantries). For a hypothetical 'balanced basket' of one of each fruit, vegetable, grain, dairy and protein item, highest-NuVal® items had a mean score of 98.8 across client-choice pantries versus 96.6 across traditional pantries; lowest-NuVal® items had mean scores of 16.4 and 35.4 respectively. Pantry workers reported lower-scoring items (e.g., white rice) were more popular-appeared in early bags or were selected first-leaving higher-scoring items (e.g., brown rice) for clients later in line. Fewer than 50% of sampled pantries were open and had food/drink to offer at listed times. Nutritional quality varied by item type and sourcing and could also vary by distribution method and client position in line. Findings suggest opportunities for pantry operation, client and staff education, and additional research.

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