Key to Houston Food Bank’s Partnership Effort? A Nutrition Policy

June 20, 2019

Read this article as originally published in Food Bank News.

When Houston Food Bank set out to address root causes of hunger, ranging from poor health to unemployment, it knew it needed to partner with hospitals, schools and clinics. It didn’t realize that getting these community organizations on board would require it to develop a nutrition policy.

Now two years old, Houston Food Bank’s three-page nutrition policy describes the foods it encourages (such as fruits, vegetables and lean proteins) and those it no longer actively seeks (such as candy, chips and soda). While simple, the policy has been a game-changer for Reginald Young, Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships, who is charged with developing relationships with social services providers through the food bank’s Food for Change program. Food for Change integrates healthy food into various community programs, like skills training or nutrition education, to increase the chances of client success.

Through Food for Change, Houston Food Bank is now providing food to patients and clients of dozens of non-traditional partners, like healthcare facilities, schools, and community groups. Its food scholarship program, for example, gives 60 pounds of food every two weeks to students receiving training at various workforce-development agencies around Houston, helping to keep them on track toward graduation and self-sufficiency.

These community partnerships would have been much more difficult for Houston Food Bank to forge without a nutrition policy. Potential partners, especially hospitals and clinics, wanted to make sure that a relationship with the food bank would result in healthy foods being distributed at their sites. The policy “went a long way to solidify those relationships and indicate the value of partnering with the food bank,” Young said. “It’s night and day in terms of the ease of the conversation with the partners.”

Houston Food Bank is ahead of the game when it comes to having a formal nutrition policy. Only one-third of food banks do, according to a March 2018 report, A Tipping Point, from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national advocacy organization working to end hunger. Most of the rest (57%) have informal nutrition guidelines, though nearly half of these food banks said formal policies are in the works.

While informal guidelines can be helpful, formal nutrition policies — especially those that ban unhealthy items like soda and candy — have the greatest impact. MAZON found that food banks with formal nutrition policies plus bans distributed the highest percentage of fresh fruits and vegetables (37%), compared to 29% for those with only informal nutrition guidelines. Having no nutrition policy at all resulted in a much greater percentage of unhealthy food being distributed (see chart above).

“Putting a formal, written, board-approved nutrition policy in place is incredibly valuable to strategically planning annual goals and objectives,” said Marla Feldman, Senior Program Director at MAZON. “It demonstrates that the health of the community is a priority to the food bank.”

Houston Food Bank’s nutrition policy has been useful beyond the ability to demonstrate to potential partners its commitment to healthy food. The policy provides clarity about the food bank’s mission to its 350 employees, as well as new hires, Young said. It also helps educate pantries on which types of foods to order and is supporting a new “healthy pantry initiative,” which designates partner agencies as healthy if they meet certain requirements, including having client choice, a certain level of nutritious foods, and prompts that point clients toward healthy options.

Fears that donors would respond negatively to nutrition policies that potentially restrict their ability to donate food have mostly proven unfounded. MAZON’s report noted that donations either remained the same or increased at 85% of food banks that have formal nutrition policies or informal guidelines.

Financial donors, meanwhile, tend to be highly in favor of food-bank moves toward healthier food. At Houston Food Bank, donor reaction to the policy has been “extremely positive,” Young said. “In a lot of ways, it’s strengthened our message.”