Equitable Access, Nutritious Choices: Dietitians’ Guide to Food Bank Purchasing

We extend our gratitude to Seamus Damstrom and Linda Boyd, Public Health Dietitians with Interior Health’s Healthy Eating and Food Security Program, whose expertise enriches this discussion.

During our Rural Food Banks Study project, it became apparent that food banks and food security organizations are having to purchase more food than ever before to keep up with program demands. Typically, food banks rely on food donations as the bulk of the food they distribute. As purchasing budgets increase and food organizations are forced to make food procurement decisions regularly, food banks and programs are finding themselves in a position of choosing what food is offered to their food insecure clients. Since most of these programs have historically relied on donated food, they feel unprepared and even unqualified to make decisions about the kinds of food their clients should receive. 

We commend the food banks we worked with on the Rural Food Banks Study for their acknowledgement of this power dynamic, and we welcomed the conversation around what it means to create equitable access to nutritious food while facing budgetary constraints. As a first step, Land to Table consulted with Seamus Damstrom and Linda Boyd, Public Health Dietitians with Interior Health’s Healthy Eating and Food Security Program, to explore nutrition and health considerations for food bank purchasing.  

To ground the conversation, Seamus and Linda shared how dietitians view food, eating, nutrition and health in a broad way that considers a person’s situation, experiences, values, culture and other factors. We want to highlight a few key points they shared:

  • Food on its own is not good/healthy or bad/unhealthy
  • A particular food cannot ensure good or bad health (or determine body size). Instead, a variety of factors, including genetics, social determinants of health, lifestyle, etc. influence one’s health (or body size). 
  • Labeling foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy” is troublesome because it can lead to food bias and stigma of people for eating certain foods.
  • Seamus and Linda recommended using the words “nutritious” or “nutrient dense” when referring to foods that are health promoting. 

While nutrition is important, Seamus and Linda also encouraged food banks and food access programs to consider a variety of other factors when making purchasing decisions, and most importantly recommended giving people the power of choice. Below are a few guiding tips for food banks and agencies purchasing food for their programs:

  1. Reflect on what foods you currently buy and why. Does your purchasing reflect actual need and desired choices, or is it done because of enculturated food bank stereotypes, or “what we’ve always ordered”? Explore new values and goals to guide your organization’s purchasing and procurement decisions.
  1. Offer nutritious whole foods that clients may not financially be able to afford at the grocery store. Linda Boyd referenced prior surveys which indicate that produce, animal proteins, and dairy were the most requested food items in local food banks. Most clients (55.0 percent) identify fresh fruit and vegetables as the most desired items they are not receiving, followed by protein food items like meat (47.1 percent) and dairy products such as milk, cheese, or yogurt (40.0 percent). Non-perishable items, which may be more easily available through the food bank programs, were identified at much lower rates (Feeding America, 2014, pg. 151-152). These “most desired” items could be good starting items to purchase while food banks work through how to refine purchasing to suit the community. 
  1. View food as more than nutrients. Consider the meaning of food in people’s lives and why they make certain food choices – taste, cost, convenience, values, beliefs, attitudes, priorities, culture, upbringing, cooking skills and kitchen equipment, etc. Meet people where they are at and understand the nuanced needs in your community.  
  1. Offer choice. Each individual has different food needs, preferences and dietary considerations. Choice can offer dignity and help people manage pre-existing health conditions. This advice is supported by the experience of Katie S. Martin, who works with dozens of food banks, and reports that 100% of the time food banks reported positive response when they switched to a client choice model. It was a more positive experience for both guests and volunteers (Martin, 2021, pg. 83).
  1. Make sure there are opportunities to peer-share with other food banks and programs. Perhaps food purchasing decisions are made as a collective, if food needs/preferences are similar between communities, and programming is developed collaboratively to alleviate duplication in efforts and share/reduce individual staffing costs invested in procurement development. 

For nutrition guidance, in addition to feedback from community and creating opportunities for client ‘choice’, Linda and Seamus recommended the following resources and tips:

  • Canada’s Food Guide: half of your plate is fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned), aim for more whole grains, choose protein foods including plant- based proteins, and less highly processed food.
  • Interim Nutrition School Food Resource*: the Ministry of Health has created this interim resource to help support school districts with school food program planning and moving towards the provision of more nutritious food options. 
  • How to use food labels to make healthier choices – Canada’s Food Guide: Look at food labels to help guide purchasing decisions within your budget. When reviewing %DV (percent of daily value) consider a food with < 5% of a nutrient “a little of” and >15% “a lot”. Nutrients you only want a little of are saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Nutrients you may want a lot of are fibre, calcium, iron, and potassium. Compare labels of similar products to help guide your choice. Sometimes nutritious foods may have higher amounts of saturated fat, sugar or sodium, but are a good source of key nutrients (e.g. cheese is high in saturated fat and sodium but is a good source of calcium. Raisins are high in natural sugars but are a source of fiber and iron) and fit within Canada’s Food Guide. 

* The Ministry of Health will be releasing a healthy food in schools toolkit soon.

Referenced Sources:

Martin, K. (2021). Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries. Island Press

Feeding America. (2014). Hunger in America 2014. https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2020-02/hunger-in-america-2014-full-report.pdf