Building Healthy Communities

Grantee Name

Clinton County Health Department

Funding Area

Building Healthy Communities

Publication Date

July 2020

Grant Amount

$175,000

Grant Date:

December 2016 - October 2019

Low-income residents of New York State facing food insecurity often rely on local food pantries to feed themselves and their families.

Although food pantries are essential parts of the safety net, they are not always able to distribute healthy foods. Relying heavily on donations, food pantries typically do not accept large amounts of fresh produce and other perishable items because of a lack of sufficient facilities and resources to preserve them. Nonperishable foods are based on what donors choose to contribute, which are often low-cost, unhealthy, and unwanted items. In a cruel and ironic twist, food-insecure individuals must sometimes subsist on food that is laden with salt, sugar, and fat. As local pantries supply enough food to feed all household members three meals a day, the quality of the foods available for distribution has an impact on the nutritional intake and dietary patterns of the entire household.

In 2016, NYSHealth awarded the Clinton County Health Department (CCHD) a grant to create sustainable changes in the nutritional quality of food distributed at a network of rural food pantries throughout the county.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

Under this grant, CCHD:

  • Conducted a survey that found that many of the county’s food pantries lacked the equipment and space for storing fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Built capacity of pantries to accept, store, and redistribute fresh foods, including providing refrigeration and instituting signage and displays that act as behavioral nudges to help customers make healthier selections. By the end of the grant period, all 13 pantries—including 11 in the most rural reaches of the region—were able to offer perishable foods on a consistent basis.
  • Organized a media campaign, “Healthy Giving for Healthy Living,” to educate the public about donating healthy food items during food drives.
  • Enrolled participating food pantries in the Better Choice Retailer Program, which provides low-cost displays that encourage the selection of healthier food and nutrition education to food pantry workers, clients, and food drive organizers.
  • Improved the types of foods clients selected at food pantries through Better Choice shelf tags. For example, data collected pre- and post-intervention showed that whole-grain selections increased by 300%.

At the end of 2019, all participating food pantries served healthier and fresher foods to more than 27,000 hard-to-reach, low-income residents in Clinton County.

This project demonstrates that healthy food donation guidelines, behavioral nudges to help clients choose healthier items, and increased capacity to store perishable foods can improve access to healthier, more nutritious items, even in small, rural food pantries. As a result of this project, pantries in Clinton County are now better prepared to accept, store, and redistribute perishable foods and promote healthier choices. Pantries that procure foods from the Regional Food Bank have changed ordering practices to include more healthy items. Community attitudes about food donations are shifting from a focus on filling stomachs to promoting foods that support health. Additionally, the network of pantries that CCHD worked with were very receptive to partnering on this project, as they receive such little support in general, even for basic operations.

CCHD’s work with food pantries has been shared widely, both at the State and national levels, including at the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2019 Annual Meeting and at the 2018 National WIC Association conference, which also supported the production of videos about the project. Some aspects of the project are easy to replicate. For example, Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the country, promotes the use of behavioral nudges. CCHD also produced educational packets for food pantry staff and volunteers that offer guidance on which foods to promote and how, including recipes to encourage clients to try new items and a template for requesting healthy donations from food drive organizers.

Regionally, CCHD has provided technical assistance to other rural counties and independent food pantries. However, many rural counties in New York State do not have the same network of pantries that Clinton County does, so scaling up this project may require more work and time for building staff capacity and partnering with independent pantries.

The Joint Council for Economic Opportunity (JCEO), a partner of the project that runs several food pantries across the North Country, has built on this work to provide access to healthier food options. JCEO expanded its Mobile Market program into Clinton County, and is now able to serve more rural residents on a more frequent basis. Its mobile markets accept Double Up Food Bucks, a nutrition incentive program that NYSHealth has supported across the State. Double Up Food Bucks offers a dollar-to-dollar match on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) purchases at farmers markets and farm stands. The incentive is a way to increase access to and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income individuals and families.

Improving the quality of food that New Yorkers need to thrive is an important strategy that the Foundation will continue to pursue and invest in. As the COVID-19 pandemic brought havoc and upended the lives of New Yorkers across the State, NYSHealth responded by supporting the emerging needs of local communities and organizations, including around issues of food security. Many of these projects are also supporting efforts to improve the quality of food donations for New Yorkers in need. For example, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger in New York City is working to distribute healthy food for families and children in need through its food pantry services. AdkAction in the North Country is creating and distributing emergency food packages that contain one week’s worth of healthy meals to low-income residents, with food purchased from local farms and delivered using paid local labor. Foodlink in Rochester is working with the Partnership for a Healthier America, one of New York State’s largest and most innovative food banks, to get high-quality, fresh produce to residents in need. Specifically, this project will expand Foodlink’s Curbside Market model—a mobile farmers market that links low-income communities in the Rochester area with fresh, affordable, and local produce—to respond to food system disruptions created by COVID-19.

The successes and lessons from the CCHD food pantry project will help inform the Foundation’s and future grantees’ work to replicate and scale community projects that not only address access to food but also ensure that the food New Yorkers are being connected to is nutritious, palatable, and culturally relevant.

Co-funding and Additional Funds Leveraged: N/A