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Food Banks Shown to Improve Nutrition, Food Security

Food bank volunteers

U.S. air force volunteers sort items at a food bank in Spokane, Washington (Fairchld AFB)

10 Jan. 2020. Surveys of individuals in a food bank’s diabetes prevention program show the program in six months improves diet quality, overall health, and food security of participants. Results of the surveys appear in yesterday’s issue of the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, published by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, commissioned by the organization Feeding America, aimed to evaluate a program to improve nutrition, food security, and reduce type 2 diabetes among customers at a food bank in Oakland, California. Feeding America is a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs in the U.S. that feed more than 40 million people a year. Feeding America seeks to reduce food insecurity — defined as the inability to provide enough food for every person in a household — which the group says affects more than 37 million people in the U.S.

The group says food insecurity is a contributing factor to poor family health, including higher rates of type 2 diabetes. Since people in the target population will likely visit a food bank more often than a health care provider, the research team sought to assess the feasibility of preventing type 2 diabetes through a food bank. The study first screened food bank customers at 12 sites in Oakland, then enrolled customers at high risk of type 2 diabetes in a 12-month program to receive text-based health messages, diabetes-appropriate food packages, and health care referrals.

Between November 2017 and March 2018, food bank workers screened 462 customers at the 12 sites, with 299 eligible for the program, and 244 signing up. Of the participants, nine in 10 (91%) were female, eight in 10 (80%) were Hispanic, and half (49%) had annual household incomes under $20,000 per year. Participants completed questionnaires in English and Spanish at the beginning of the program, then at the six-month point, and after 12 months. The questionnaires asked about participants’ dietary intake, food security, health care status and behaviors, height and weight to compute body-mass index, and symptoms of depression.

The results show of the initial 244 survey participants,192 completed questionnaires after six months. At that point, the percentage of adults saying they skipped meals fell to 29 percent from 44 percent at the beginning, and the share of households considered food insecure fell from 69 to 63 percent. Also at six months, consumption of healthy foods (e.g., salads, grains, fruits, and vegetables) increased, while fried and sugary foods decreased. Likewise, general health indicators and physical activity increased, while depression scores decreased. Plus, these gains largely continued for the next six months. However, body-mass index of participants remained about the same throughout the study.

The authors conclude food banks can serve as a key community resource for preventing type 2 diabetes and improving overall health. “Through this study,” says Hilary Seligman, Feeding America’s senior medical adviser in an organization statement, “we learned that food banks can support food security while at the same time reducing diabetes risk factors for people at highest risk of developing the disease. Participants increased their fruit and vegetable intake, decreased their soda and sweets intake, increased their physical activity, and reported better overall physical and mental health.”

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