March is National Nutrition Month and we’re publishing a series of blog posts that focus on nutrition within our networks. You can also learn about our programs here.
This is a post from Michelle Wallace, Vermont Foodbank Program Director.
My first experience at a local food shelf was a bit uncomfortable and awkward. I went there as a volunteer to help restock the shelves with cans and boxes of food. Prior to going, I didn’t think much about fruits and vegetables and I was surprised and unprepared for what I experienced. In the corner, hunched over a cardboard box, I saw an elderly woman rummaging through a mixture of root vegetables and greens to get to a few decent potatoes and carrots.
I hid my emotions. But, in my discomfort, I was asking myself, was this a dignified way of accessing food? Was this somewhat humiliating and embarrassing for her?
I noticed most visitors turned away from these cardboard boxes of fruits and vegetables. Food choices are influenced and affected in part by our environment. Did this way of distributing fruits and vegetables potentially discourage people from choosing these healthier items?
I noticed that the staff and volunteers were incredibly respectful toward the visitors and did not intend any disrespect. It seemed that the challenges were, in many ways, quite simple and tangible. The physical environment of the food shelf had limited refrigeration, storage, systems and resources in place for sorting, displaying and promoting these fresh foods.
The food environment of hunger relief organizations such as food shelves and food banks were historically built around the availability of non-perishable foods. For decades, these foods have been an important part of providing vulnerable populations with an emergency food supply.
Today, the availability of this shelf stable food is limited and the face of hunger is changing. Many of our neighbors who are seeking food assistance have jobs, raise families, work toward education and struggle with health problems. Low wages, underemployment and unemployment are driving the need for food assistance. People are relying on food shelves on a regular basis and are forced to choose between food and housing, food and medical care, food and transportation and utilities.
The Hunger in America 2014 study shows that 1 in 4 people, or an estimated 153,100 people, in Vermont turn to food shelves and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families. Accounting for multiple program visits, clients turned to the Vermont Foodbank’s network partners 1.2 million times over the course of the year. That’s an average of 8.3 times a year. Nationally, the numbers follow a similar pattern (1).
This change from an emergency food system to a food system that people need to utilize on a regular basis demands a new level of responsibility, a responsibility to provide the most nutritious and healthy food available. Individuals and families who are chronically food insecure are especially at risk of poor nutrition and poor health outcomes. Fresh fruit and vegetables are a proven way to improve nutrition and health. In fact, Hunger in America 2014 revealed that 23% of households served by the Vermont Foodbank had a member with diabetes and 46% had a member with high blood pressure.
This particular set of circumstances has led the Vermont Foodbank to ask a few directed questions.
- What would happen if the food shelf environment was set up to encourage people to choose more fruit and vegetables?
- For example, what if fruit and vegetables were displayed in a more visible, attractive and even beautiful way, including vibrant signage, produce banners, and shelf labels like you might see at a farmers’ market?
- What would happen if the food shelf was filled with the comforting and welcoming smells of sautéed onions and garlic being cooked with a specific vegetable of the day?
- What would happen if visitors had a chance to taste a particular vegetable and discover that they actually liked something they thought they didn’t like?
- What would happen if this change in the food environment also created a space to connect with one another, talk about food and share ideas and stories about what we eat?
- What else might be possible in this space of connecting around food?
- Could we even introduce visitors to health care providers for simple health screenings and consultations that assist people to better understand the link between food and health?
VT Fresh is a program of the Vermont Foodbank that aims to answer these questions. VT Fresh applies evidence-based strategies, research and best practices in nutrition and health education (2) to a food environment that is often overlooked but full of potential: local food shelves.
Primarily, VT Fresh incorporates ideas from behavioral economics research (3), applying findings from food marketing and psychology to improve the food shelf environment. Behavioral economics offers creative and intuitive strategies that emphasize displays, promotions and messaging tools which make particular choices a little bit more prominent than other choices. This can help make it easier for people to make food choices in the moment that are more beneficial to their long-term health.
What does behavioral economics research tell us about human behavior and the food choices we are likely to make?
Food decisions are often times more emotional than rational. Individuals are more receptive to adding foods that are healthier to their diet than they are to eliminating unhealthy foods.
People respond to sensory experiences and immediate gratification. Displaying healthy foods more prominently and attractively draws attention to them.
The way the food is presented may influence choosing healthy food over unhealthy food. Changing the placement of specific food items, to make them more visible so they stand out can increase their consumption.
Simply providing people with a greater variety of healthful foods increases the consumption of them.
Changing the containers used to display certain foods, such as attractive baskets and bowls can influence someone’s choice to eat those foods.
And, connecting with others over food can be motivational and also act as a reminder of positive experiences. For example, offering tastings and cooking demos often encourages conversations about food, including the sharing of personal stories and ideas. This process of connecting people over food can influence how an individual expects a food to taste and how likely they are to try new foods and recipes.
Experiments have shown that individuals that think an item will taste good may like it more than they thought they would. The power of word-of-mouth advertising has an impact far greater than simply providing information about why we should make healthy food choices. An individual’s willingness to try something new and decide that they will like it is greatly influenced by the people around them (4).
Local food shelves have an untapped potential to make an even bigger impact at an individual and community level. Their biggest assets are the caring and passionate volunteers and staff that manage them. Through VT Fresh, we have discovered the following:
- Transforming the food environment at a food shelf begins with people who are passionate about food and helping others. It begins with people who are willing to sort through and remove spoiled items and who are willing and able to procure a variety of produce via partnerships with local food banks and retailers, as well as gleaning from farms and gardens. Making produce more abundant and a larger share of the food that’s distributed at the food shelf is the first step in this continuum of change.
- Next, improving an individual’s ability to access this food is needed. Thinking creatively about how fresh foods are presented and displayed and perhaps even considering how to improve convenience, accessibility and appeal by prepackaging or doing some light processing can impact an individual’s choices. Offering special produce distribution days with the primary purpose to gather the community together to access fresh foods sets up a scenario where those items will be chosen in greater amounts.
- To improve utilization, some of the simplest strategies are also the most personable ones. Providing timely reminders such as tastings and quick tips that highlight vegetables of the day, combined with verbal prompts and encouragements to try fruits and vegetables can go a long way.
These are low-cost ways to transform the food shelf environment. Transforming this food environment can activate hearts and minds with what looks, feels, smells and tastes good. This is one small step towards connecting us more deeply to the food we eat, with one another and to our own health in meaningful ways.
Programs like this would not be possible without your support. Please consider making a gift to the Vermont Foodbank today.
(1) The Hunger in America 2014 study is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive insight into charitable food distribution in the United States. http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/our-research/the-hunger-study/
(2) Process Evaluation of Baltimore Healthy Stores: A Pilot Health Intervention Program With Supermarkets and Corner Stores in Baltimore City Health Promot Pract September 2010 11: 723-732, 2009.
Seymour JD, Yaroch AL, Serdula M, Blanck HM, Khan LK. Impact of nutrition environmental interventions on point-of-purchase behavior in adults: A review. Preventive Medicine. 2004;39(Suppl 2):S108–S136.
Bandura A. Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall; 1986.
(3) Price, Joe and Riis, Jason. Behavioral Economics and the Psychology of Fruit and Vegetable Consumption: A Scientific Overview, 2012. Produce for Better Health Foundation, 2012.
(4) Just, David R., Lisa Mancino, and Brian Wansink. Could Behavioral Economics Help Improve Diet Quality for Nutrition Assistance Program
Participants? ERR-43. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Econ. Res. Serv. June 2007.