Produce donation program improves health and nutrition at food pantries
food pantry
Sherry Miller, director of the Daystar Community Program in Cairo, Illinois, receives produce from a local food donation garden.

URBANA, Ill. ­– Food pantries provide much needed relief for food insecure individuals and families. But pantries often rely on donations of canned and packaged foods with limited nutritional value. Growing Together Illinois, a program from Illinois Extension, aims to provide fresh produce to food pantry clientele across the state.

A University of Illinois research team evaluated the program and found it to be successful in improving availability and distribution of fresh, nutritious foods.

Growing Together Illinois began in 2017 as part of a multi-state effort. It is implemented in collaboration between Extension’s Master Gardener program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed).

“The program donates fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs to the pantries. The overall goal is improved food access, but we also provide nutrition education and other support,” says Trinity Allison, SNAP-Ed senior program lead and co-author on the study.

Produce is grown in community gardens run by volunteers with assistance from Master Gardeners, who bring knowledge and expertise on planning, planting, maintaining and harvesting. SNAP-Ed staff assists pantries with handling and promoting the produce, and provides education on usage, recipes, and suggestions for bundling with other meal items.

Melissa Pflugh Prescott, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) at U of I, led the multi-method research project to evaluate the program. 

Prescott and her colleagues used the Nutrition Environment Food Pantry Assessment Tool (NEFPAT) to track changes before and after the intervention at 17 participating pantries. NEFPAT evaluates how healthful the consumer nutrition environment is at each pantry. The tool measures a range of dimensions such as availability and variety of healthy food choices, promotion, and planning resources.

The researchers also interviewed staff at five pantries to gain deeper insights into the program’s effects, and they conducted structured observations of pantry style and storage facilities at those locations. 

Prescott says NEFPAT results showed significant improvement from Growing Together Illinois in terms of providing various types of produce and promoting healthy food items to clientele, and overall NEFPAT scores improved.

“From the interviews, we learned some of the things the Growing Together team was doing to overcome common barriers pantries experience with donations. For example, they often lack storage space and may only be open a few hours each week,” she states.

“The Master Gardeners worked in collaboration with SNAP-Ed and pantry staff to time the deliveries so it made sense with the pantry operation. That was one of the biggest facilitators to making this program work. And everything arrived at the pantries cleaned, packaged and ready to go, making it as easy as possible for the pantry staff to get it out to people.”

Community gardens received program funding for the first years of operation but continue to supply donations for pantries.

“The initial small investment has turned into thousands of pounds of produce every year. It has been really exciting to see those communities increase capacity to keep the garden and the donation system going long term,” Allison says. 

Prescott adds, “The national SNAP-Ed program is advocating policy, systems, and environmental change strategies to help communities make healthier eating choices. This is a great example of a systems change, where different aspects of Extension come together in collaboration with community partners to make fresh, healthy food more accessible for vulnerable populations.”

Illinois Extension has created a Find Food IL map that people can use to locate food resources in their community. Search by zip code to find local food pantries and free meal sites, as well as grocery stores and farmers markets that accept SNAP and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) coupons.

The paper, “Nutrition Environment at Food Pantries Improves After Fresh Produce Donation Program,” is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2021.09.005]. Authors are Starr’Retiece Gibson, Jessica Jarick Metcalfe, Jennifer McCaffrey. Trinity Allison, and Melissa Pflugh Prescott.

Funding for the research was provided by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, award no. 1015725.