USDA urged to establish nutritional guidelines for its food distribution programs

No federal policies and few state policies affecting food bank donations currently prioritize nutrition, according to a new report released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The report, Policy Approaches to Healthier Food Banking, finds that only 43 (14.6 percent) of 295 federal and state policies impacting food donation address donated food’s nutritional quality.

The report calls for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish nutritional guidelines for its food distribution programs (the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservation) and offers other recommendations for the public and private sectors.

Research shows that 25 percent of food and beverages distributed through food banks is unhealthy, according to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health. At the same time, the nation is facing high levels of food and nutrition insecurity, exacerbated by COVID-19, particularly among families with low incomes and in communities of color, according to the report. Sixty million people relied on food banks and other charitable food system organizations in 2020.

“Food insecure adults and children are at risk of developing diet-related disease and poor health outcomes,” said CSPI campaign manager for healthy food access Joelle Johnson. “As the holiday season approaches, more individuals and families might be seeking help from the charitable food system, and they deserve fresh, nutritious food that meets their needs.”

CSPI, in collaboration with the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (Lerner Center), searched legal databases for federal and state public policies affecting food donation. Researchers sorted and analyzed relevant policies into 10 categories. In order of most to least common these categories were—liability protection, date labeling, government programs, donation via schools, wild game donation, tax incentives, grant programs, food safety, policies authorizing donation of certain food, and organic waste bans. The report also includes interviews with food bank executives, food retail executives, and charitable food system stakeholders to assess the impact that federal and state policies have on healthy food donation.

Other federal recommendations include increasing funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) by indexing the program to a more adequate Food Plan than the Thrifty Food Plan and increasing TEFAP's Farm to Food Bank funding to at least $25 million.

At the state level, the report recommends that additional states implement direct-spending programs supporting farm-to-food bank donations. For example, Pennsylvania’s Agricultural Surplus System subsidizes food bank acquisition of fruits, vegetables, dairy, and protein from local producers, packers, and processors. It also calls for more states to adopt organic waste ban policies which bar landfilling of food waste by producers over a certain tonnage. This creates an incentive to reduce food waste.

“There has been an increased effort in recent years to divert more food to food banks rather than waste it, but an enormous amount of nutritious food still is not captured—13.9 million tons of food go unharvested annually,” said CSPI legal fellow Emily Friedman. “Our research reveals significant opportunities for public policy reforms that can get more nutritious food to those who need it most, while simultaneously reducing food waste.”

This report was supported by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Lerner Center, and From Now on Fund.