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Do food pantry environments encourage healthy food choices? New tool can assess

Published June 20, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – A food pantry’s primary objective is to get food to the participants that need it—to meet their immediate needs. Annually, food pantries, or food banks, distribute free grocery items to over 46.5 million people in the United States.

Researchers and Extension educators at the University of Illinois are asking if improvements to the consumer nutrition environment of food pantries—placement of items, food choices, freshness, availability of nutritional information, etc.—can also help participants in making healthier food choices.

In a study, led by Cassandra Nikolaus, doctoral candidate in human nutrition at U of I, researchers introduce a new tool for food pantries to use in determining their nutrition environment. The Nutrition Environment Food Pantry Assessment Tool, or NEFPAT, is a checklist of observations about the food pantry that a trained assessor can use to recommend improvements.

“There are clientele who are using pantries on a chronic or cyclical basis and we really want to encourage healthy options even in this emergency setting,” Nikolaus says. “The NEFPAT provides a way of evaluating how the pantry is currently set up, and Extension staff working with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education [SNAP-Ed] can assist in making any improvements, working with the pantries to encourage those options.”

Jennifer McCaffrey, assistant dean of family and consumer science for U of I Extension and a co-author of the study, says the food pantry assessment tool is one part of an overall project looking at Extension’s community nutrition education model assessing how participants, primarily low-income women,  interact with programs in their community. “Are we reaching families and in what ways in the community? Is the food pantry environment supporting the overall objectives we have for the nutrition education programs?”

The goal, McCaffrey says, is to set up the food pantry in a way that supports healthful behaviors, and makes it easier to prepare nutritious meals.

“It’s kind of like the shows that do a kitchen or refrigerator makeover, except it is a pantry,” McCaffrey says. “What used to happen before was pantries were serving out their mission of giving people food, but sometimes people didn’t know what to do with it. Food may have gone to waste because it didn’t come with the right items to make a meal or they didn’t know how to cook it.

“By doing a pantry makeover, people can easily gather foods that support a healthier diet, easily prepare it, and feed their families,” she adds.

A lot of that has to do with placement or how items are bundled together so they’re easier for people to grab. “Think of a grocery store where they’re always putting things right at the cash register. It’s a similar concept. As people flow through the pantry, it’s about putting things where people can easily be triggered to take those healthier items. Like produce. Or putting items that make a meal together. You might put noodles, spaghetti sauce, and some additional vegetables together, with a recipe for spaghetti primavera. They can take the recipe and all the needed ingredients for it,” McCaffrey explains.

So far, Nikolaus says they have used the tool in 27 pantries across Illinois. They will keep evaluating and improving the tool, and hope to share it with others doing similar work throughout the United States.

At this stage, assessors are primarily Extension staff members working with SNAP-Ed. “If it’s a pantry we’ve never partnered with before, the first part of the visit is building the relationship, describing what the NEFPAT’s for, and what U of I Extension can offer. We go through the evaluation. There are some things we ask about, but the majority of the tool is visual so we can be objective,” Nikolaus says. After the initial meeting, Extension staff will meet again with pantry staff to discuss next steps, discuss what is feasible for them to adopt, and what they have the ability to do.

“Then we can partner with them moving forward. Ideally, we make it more of a long-term relationship,” Nikolaus says.

The checklist/tool is available online. Those interested in the tool can also contact Nikolaus at cjnikol2@illinois.edu.

The paper, “Nutrition Environment Food Panty Assessment Tool (NEFPAT): Development and evaluation,” is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. (DOI:10.1016/j.jneb.2018.03.011) Co-authors include Cassandra J. Nikolaus, Emily Laurent, Emily Loehmer, Ruopeng An, Naiman Khan, and Jennifer McCaffrey.

Funding for the project was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture North Central Nutrition Education Center of Excellence and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education.