New research studies nutritional value of food in food banks

Kevin Chen/Staff

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A study conducted by UC Berkeley researchers is helping food banks develop better ways to provide healthy options to those they serve.

The study, carried out by researchers Elizabeth Campbell, Michelle Ross and Karen Webb at the campus Center for Weight and Health, is the first project to extensively examine the nutritional value of emergency food and recommend improvements to food bank practices.

“It’s kind of groundbreaking of us,” Webb said.

In the past, food banks couldn’t afford to turn anything away, even less nutritious products, Webb said. Now, they are beginning to look for ways to provide healthier options.

In one portion of the study, researchers looked at nutritional policies by surveying 200 food banks across the country. Another segment focused on examining inventory data spanning from 2007 to 2010 from six California food banks. The last part discussed the implications of the research on food bank managers in helping them develop nutrition policies in order to offer fresher, more nutritious foods.

The team discovered food banks generally focused on supporting nutrition and had goals in place to improve the nutritional quality of food offered to their clients. They also noted that some food banks had received increased amounts of donations over the four-year period and a small decline in sugar-sweetened beverages and snack foods.

Berkeley Food Pantry, a local nonprofit food bank that was not studied in the research, has faced similar struggles in providing healthy options while also encouraging more people to donate, according to Tami Groves, the food bank’s director.

The food bank caters to about 200 to 250 people a day and encourages donors to give nutritious foods or provide monetary donations so the food bank can have greater control over the quality of foods provided.

“We take (junk food) because people enjoy donating, and we want to take the chances that they might donate something of value if they donate again,” Groves said. “It’s a numbers game.”

The researchers hope their study can positively influence food banks nationwide.

According to Webb, the team has plans to work with nine more Southern Californian food banks directly for 18 months to develop online resources for food banks to improve nutrition policies. They will provide ways to source healthier foods and an online resource kit for food banks all over the country.

“Our research has influenced mainly a number of people who are helping food banks out,” Webb said. “It’s clarified for us for what kind of directions we need to be helping food banks with.”

Contact Lydia Tuan at [email protected].