A year ago, Washington D.C.'s Capital Area Food Bank — one of the largest in the country — decided to turn away junk food, joining a growing trend of food banks that are trying to offer healthier options to low-income Americans. From soda to chips, the CAFB has reduced the junk food it supplies to its 444 nonprofit partners, including soup kitchens and food pantries, by 84 percent.
"This change was in large part driven by the people we're serving," says Hilary Salmon, director of communications at CAFB, which distributes 46 million pounds of food every year to partners in D.C., as well as the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. "The feedback we were getting from our partners, over and over again, was that people were hearing from their doctors that they really need to reduce the salt and sugar in their diet and increase fiber."
Forty-eight percent of the people the CAFB serves have high blood pressure, while 22 percent have diabetes, or they live with someone who has those diseases.
"We see that information and feel it's a moral imperative to be focusing on food that is going to drive better health outcomes for folks," says Salmon.
Other food banks agree. Sharing Life Community Outreach, a food pantry in Mesquite, Texas, practices "nudging," essentially making healthier foods more appealing and easy to access when clients arrive. For example, the pantry might stock brown rice in two locations and put white rice on a higher shelf.
And in 2014, the SF-Marin food bank in Northern California banned soda donations, while the Borderlands Food Bank in southern Arizona distributes 35 to 40 million pounds of fresh produce – turned away at the border by wholesalers for having imperfect looks – to food banks across the nation.
Meanwhile, in May, Feeding America, a national coalition of food assistance programs serving 46 million people each year, announced a seven-year commitment to "increase distribution of fruits and vegetables, increase demand of healthier options among donors and recipients and increase network capacity to focus on nutrition and health."
A leader in the movement toward nourishing food assistance, CAFB hasn't just cut back on sugary snacks and drinks in the last year. Since 2015, it's also boosted the amount of protein it offers — including 544,000 more pounds of beans and other vegetarian protein. That's an increase of 57 percent.
"I used to get a bin of candy from the CAFB. Since they made this decision, I haven't been getting that anymore," says Jasmine Ramsay of the Pennsylvania Avenue Seventh Day Adventist Church, one of the food bank's partners. "The CAFB has made me realize how important it is to give not just bags of food, but nutritious food."
While some critics have argued that the poor are too often told what to eat, as if they can't make responsible decisions for themselves, Salmon says the goal of the program isn't to be the food police. "Everyone deserves a treat now and then," she says, but people also deserve to have balanced options to choose from.
Many people receiving assistance work two or three jobs in order to provide for their families. They're time-strapped, so the food bank has developed a suite of easy-to-follow, quick recipes that can be prepared for under $7.
"They use really basic ingredients," says Salmon. "Maybe you've never cooked an eggplant before. Well, now it's not 'that purple thing.' It's [something that's] good for you. If you stir it up with some low-salt tomatoes and a few other ingredients, it can be really tasty and economical."
To improve its inventory, the CAFB had to circle back with the 12 grocery store retailers that donate the bulk of the bank's food, and that historically often leaned toward high-sugar, low-nutrition items.
"Sometimes there can be an inclination to think of corporations as .... The enemy," says Salmon. "But in fact, the opposite has been very true for us. We've gone to the folks we work with and said, 'Hey, in some instances we're not getting the food from you that we like, or we're getting way too much of the stuff we don't need.' And they've been really receptive."
At least in the past, though, some food banks felt pressured to take junk food in order to get the products they really wanted like fresh vegetables and meat, as NPR reported in 2011. To date, the CAFB has managed to make improvements and retain relationships with all of its major food donors.
The CAFB also runs a program called The Fruits and Vegetables Funds for Greater Washington, which contracts with farmers to grow produce. It still represents only a small share of the total volume of food the CAFB distributes, but the hope is to increase that amount over time, says Salmon. She points out that the CAFB wants to encourage retailers to set up shop in low-income neighborhoods and food deserts. "We want to be part of the solution, but we don't want to be the solution," she says. "We want to encourage other players, too."
According to Salmon, food banks nationally serve about 14 percent of the total population at any given time. And many food banks are eyeing the CAFB model for inspiration. "We've talked with a number of our food bank peers," she says. "I think [the switch toward healthier options] is something you'll see more and more of across the country. We're coming to the realization as a nation that food is the driver in health."
Funders seem to agree. The CAFB has reported a 22 percent increase in funding since it started to nix empty calories over the last year.