SNAP-Ed inspires healthy eating in Southeast Michigan food pantries

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Nearly 1.3 million Michiganders lack nutrition security – meaning they lack consistent access to the nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables needed to sustain good health. Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan (Gleaners) is working to bolster nutrition security by actively sourcing a variety of fruits and vegetables that they deliver to area food pantries and other charitable food programs, and by providing nutrition education information for pantry guests.

Nutrition education efforts at Gleaners are made possible in part through Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

Gleaners works to build program sustainability and support volunteer capacity through their SNAP-Ed policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) work. They do this in a variety of ways: providing recipes and nutritional education resources to pantry guests, offering training and technical assistance to pantry staff and volunteers, and guiding efforts to improve the physical pantry space to highlight healthy foods.

Recipes at Shared Harvest Pantry in Howell.
This work begins by understanding the unique needs of the people across the communities Gleaners serves.

At The Warren Warehouse at Woodside Bible Church, Gleaners collaborates with the pastor and pantry staff to identify objectives and the needs of their guests.

"Healthy eating is great, especially as you're talking about the working poor, as access to healthy, nutritious food is challenging. Inflation and the pandemic have completely changed our reality," says Tyler Mollenkamp, outreach pastor for the pantry. "I have this big desire to uphold people's dignity so that they can have access to fresh foods, despite their current circumstances."

Using the SNAP-Ed Voices for Food (VFF) toolkit, Gleaners used VFF’s MyChoice Pantry Scorecard to establish a baseline, and as a practical, simple assessment tool.

“We use the scorecard to discuss hopes for the pantry and what the staff and volunteers would like to change within the pantry and then assess the goals for the rest of the year along with any additional short-term task or long-term goals,” says Jake Williams, Gleaners’ nutrition education manager. “The conversations launched with the scorecard are very helpful for the pantry staff and usually lead to bigger conversations that help prioritize goals.”

Jake Williams.
For example, the pantry wanted to reorganize all of their stand-up freezers by food groups. This short-term task is something that could be accomplished relatively quickly by pantry volunteers.

"The environmental part of this PSE work is done by, for example, positioning things strategically in the pantry, creating a more well-lit display to display fruits and vegetables, and sharing information about the ways to preserve those fruits and vegetables by freezing or keeping them in proper storage areas," Williams says. "For example, a lot of people don't realize potatoes and onions shouldn't be stored right next to each other [because onions emit a gas that makes potatoes go soft]."

The scorecard also helped the team examine how the Warren Warehouse pantry could better highlight healthier food options by featuring them more prominently on the shelves to make them easier for pantry guests to select. Now, they merchandise the fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food items at eye level, along with inspiring signage, to draw attention to the healthier products at the pantry.

"By displaying fruits and vegetables front and center with easy-to-use recipes, the pantry is putting the focus on healthy eating. And that engages the pantry guests to choose those foods," Williams says.

Michigan Harvest of the Month™ recipe cards are also placed with corresponding food items. The recipe cards also include links to the Michigan Harvest of the Month™ website, where visitors can find more affordable, healthy recipes to make at home.

"If they see kidney beans on the shelf and they don't typically eat kidney beans, there's a recipe that shows how you can use them," Mollenkamp says. "They've educated me and our pantry leader. When people come down, we don't just give them a box of food and send them on their merry way. Our guests go through the pantry with one of our volunteers and select what foods they actually need and are provided with information to help them cook it at home."

To take it a step further, Gleaners provides additional resources that support healthy eating.

"Gleaners has created a station where people can pick up nutrition education resources for healthy eating. They've given us recipes, handouts, and posters. We've just created a small 'Gleaners Corner' for that," Mollenkamp says. "They kind of took us under their wing because they have a desire to see local pantries thrive, which I love."

By incorporating changes in the food pantry, they are improving the overall environment by drawing attention to healthy foods with supportive resources. This work supports and inspires healthy choices while enhancing the overall guest experience at the pantry.

Making the healthy choice an easy choice

Over in Livingston County, the Shared Harvest Pantry has also been working with Gleaners to make changes in the pantry environment that encourage healthy food choices. For example, the prominent aisle that had displayed breads and grains now features fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce is also showcased in high-visibility displays throughout the pantry. And, just last week, they were discussing dedicating the waiting room area and redesigning the shelving to better connect pantry clients to additional healthy resources.

"This really encourages our guests to look at the healthier product," says Bridget Brown, director for Gleaners' Food Secure Livingston program. "Our volunteers also help us with posting flyers and signage that encourage our guests to choose healthier foods. Our volunteers know what's available and share that with our guests as they're shopping. They might say, 'Hey, have you tried this before? Here's how you use it. Look at this recipe, it's a healthy one for you.'"

Bridget Brown.
Gleaners' SNAP-Ed nutrition educators also attend Livingston County Hunger Council meetings to promote Gleaners programs, provide information, and engage the volunteer council members in their PSE work.

"In the last few years, it's gone from the idea that 'We should have fresh produce available' to an expectation. Then, once we did better with offering fresh produce, people wanted it,” Brown says. “Now, we get requests from clients … 'Can you get lettuce? Can you get cucumbers?' We're here to really make a difference in these families' lives."

Bridget Brown and Jake Williams.
“Every pantry assessment generates different results, and the support we provide is customized and varies from pantry to pantry,” Williams adds. “PSE work is a long and nonlinear process. It takes time to build relationships and to make long-lasting change. It takes partners willing to keep the discussion open and gather community input that is meaningful to the guest that each pantry serves.”
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