Report Reveals Need for Prioritizing Nutritious Food Donations

A recent report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) finds that federal and state policies affecting food bank donations fail to prioritize nutritious food donations over unhealthy donations.

The report finds that out of 42 federal and 253 state laws, regulations, and administrative decisions related to the charitable food system (CFS), only 43, or 14.6 percent, address the nutritional quality of food donations.

“With 60 million people accessing the CFS in 2020, the public health implications of not providing nutritious food to people turning to the system are enormous and important to address,” Emily Friedman, Legal Fellow at CSPI and co-author of the report, tells Food Tank.

In the United States, food banks, are serving 55 percent more people than before the pandemic, according to Feeding America. The CSPI report aims to understand how federal and state governments can better leverage public policy to provide more nutritious food and limit unhealthy donations to food banks.

CSPI researchers collaborated with the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to search legal databases for federal and state public policies affecting food donation. Researchers sorted and analyzed relevant policies into 10 categories: liability protection, date labeling, government programs, donations via schools, wild game donations, tax incentives, grant programs, food safety, policies authorizing donation of certain food, and organic waste bans. Out of 295 policies, liability protection policies comprise the majority, at 23.2 percent of total policies, followed by date labeling at 14.6 percent.

Researchers also conducted interviews with food bank executives, food retail executives, and CFS stakeholders to understand attitudes and perceptions about nutritious food donation. Most respondents cite food safety concerns as a barrier to donation, emphasizing that logistical concerns, rather than concerns about adequate regulatory food safety guidance, are one of the biggest challenges. Other interviewees, however, express that more food safety regulatory guidance could boost donations, particularly donations of nutritious, highly perishable food.

Surveys show that CFS clients prefer fruits, vegetables, and protein over soda, candy, and snack foods. For example, Feeding America’s Hunger in America National Report finds that 55 percent of CFS recipients identified fresh fruit and vegetables as the most desired item they did not receive.

According to the CSPI report, one key barrier to improving the nutritional quality of donations is the lack of incentives to prioritize healthy foods. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food Distribution Programs, which supply the CFS with a significant portion of food, lack formal nutrition guidelines.

“USDA has steadily tried to align the nutritional quality of foods provided by these programs with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the nutritional quality has improved, but there are still gaps,” Friedman tells Food Tank. “The Commodity Supplemental Food Program does not include any fresh produce—that could be closed if USDA added formal nutrition guidelines.”

The report proposes three policy reforms. First, the researchers suggest strengthening the nutritional quality of USDA Food Distribution Programs, which include the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).

The researchers also find that introducing or strengthening government farm-to-food bank programs has the potential to secure long-term access to nutritious food. Farm-food-bank describes the movement of mostly fruits and vegetables, either through donation or purchase, directly from farmers to the CFS.

Implementing additional state-level organic waste bans may also help encourage nutritious food donations, according to the report. While current organic waste bans focus on barring the landfilling of food waste by producers over a certain tonnage, no bans prioritize food donation. The report suggests new bans should explicitly include edible food donation as an option under the law.

Friedman is hopeful that the report’s recommendations will shed light on the problems of unhealthy food donations and foster opportunities for change. “We hope that the report inspires fresh action at the federal, state, and even local levels and bolsters the good work that other groups in the anti-hunger, food policy, and nutrition spaces are doing to improve charitable food system food,” Friedman tells Food Tank.

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Photo courtesy of Aaron Doucett, Unsplash

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