Redesigning food pantries
Photo by Amy Cherry June 13, 2022
UD nutrition dietetic grad students help Food Bank of Delaware on its mission to provide culturally relevant foods
Aspiring registered dietitians in the University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences are helping redesign food pantries with cultural awareness in mind.
First-year Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics/Dietetic Internship students in Shannon Robson’s Nutrition Program Planning and Evaluation course teamed up with the Food Bank of Delaware (FBD) to conduct a community needs assessment to identify the wants and needs of residents so available food options could be more culturally appropriate.
Robson, an associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition and a UD graduate (Class of 2007, College of Health Sciences), who volunteered at the FBD during her college years, has partnered with FBD in the past with the projects looking different each semester pending the needs of the FBD.
“I think it’s important for students to be a part of and understand the community in which our University is in,” Robson said. “Also, a lot of community organizations don’t necessarily have the staff to do these data-driven elements, but they really want the information, and it helps them, so I feel like it’s a win-win.”
During the spring semester of 2022, the group of four students crafted a community needs health assessment that began with analyzing the U.S. Census data for Delaware. They then sought to better understand the availability of cultural and traditional foods in food pantries compared to residents’ preferences and needs.
The surveys, distributed in both English and Spanish, targeted both staff running local food pantries and clients, or “neighbors,” as the FBD affectionately calls them. Neighbors were asked what cultural/traditional foods are normally included in their diet, where they find those foods and how often they prepare them at home, and whether those foods are available at their food pantry, and if not, what foods they’d like to see more readily available.
They spent the month of May analyzing the data. Of 135 Hunger-Relief Partners, or pantries, 58 responded. Eighty percent said that cultural or traditional foods aren’t requested.
Out of more than 200 client responses, the majority, or 81% said they don’t identify with a country or culture outside the U.S., and 92% said the foods at their pantry are culturally relevant to them.
“You could say the majority are happy with the foods provided but it’s important to recognize the impact change could have on that small percent who aren’t getting the foods they’re used to cooking and consuming,” Robson said.
The 8% who expressed that their food pantry didn’t supply culturally relevant foods noted they’d love to see more red meat, including steak, ham hocks, and chorizo. They also wanted to see a more diverse selection of vegetables like okra, yautias, and sweet potatoes, and grains, including roti and naan, available at their local food pantries.
“They didn’t say their needs weren’t being met, but they said they wanted more culturally specific meats and rice,” said student Hannah Rater.
In the 19720 and 19805 zip codes, which have a higher percentage of Hispanic or Latino population than the state, residents said they wanted to see more rice and beans at their pantries. Of respondents in the 19801 zip code, 72% were Black or African American, many of Caribbean descent, who expressed a desire for chitterlings and yellow rice to be stocked on pantry shelves.
“As more immigrants come into the U.S. and we think about what that experience is like for them, particularly from a nutrition perspective, trying to find foods that might be traditional is an important piece,” Robson said. “There’s also been a shift in the broader environment related to the importance of diversity that has brought this interest about.”
Anna McDermott, senior director of workforce and community development for FBD, called providing more culturally relevant foods an “area of concern” for the organization as they continue strategic planning.
After students presented their findings and recommendations to senior staff at the Food Bank of Delaware on May 19, McDermott called the steps that would follow “achievable.”
“I think we’re part of the way there. We still have work to do, and this is definitely a good starting point for us,” she said.
Among the students’ recommendations: provide more red meat, grains, and vegetables to pantries throughout the state; obtain the culturally relevant meats and rice requested in pantries in corresponding zip codes; and provide more vegan options to a food pantry in Claymont.
“Diving deeper into individual pantries’ specific needs and targeting those populations,” Rater said. “Some have a cultural need, and some don’t.”
That suggestion was spot-on, said McDermott, who indicated next steps include reaching out directly to pantries that responded to the survey to drill down on wants and needs.
“That will influence our food sourcing and purchasing to make sure that we’re connecting those pantries with those foods,” McDermott said. “We definitely want anyone who’s food insecure in the state to access the foods that they need.”
Another aspect of FBD operations involves donations. Student Dani Keenan said the FBD can use the data to rally the community to play a part in providing culturally appropriate items.
“If people are donating food and they’re aware of what’s being requested, then they could make those culturally-relevant donations instead,” Keenan said while stressing that people often donate what they would eat and that may not align with clients’ desires.
Leah Brown, community nutrition director at FBD, called this the “perfect” partnership.
“The students did an amazing job,” Brown said. “Their presentation was very thorough and polished. We’re so appreciative of the work that they’ve done.”
Now, FBD will use the data from the survey to make more informed decisions and increase overall satisfaction among neighbors.
“The fact that the majority of neighbors said that they’re happy with what we were doing — that’s great — but for the remaining 10%, we still have work to do,” Brown said. “We want to go the extra mile to treat humans as humans and provide foods that are culturally relevant that they can identify and that their families will eat. Hopefully, through future endeavors, we’ll be able to provide the food they want and need so they don’t miss out on getting a free service.”
Brown said she hopes a future group of Robson’s students could take this data to the next level and break it down by racial and ethnic groups within the Black and African American population, which aren’t differentiated by subcategories in census data, and consider religious backgrounds that could further inform food decisions.
“When it comes to the Black and African American background groups, it’s not just one pot — you have people who are from the Caribbean or parts of Africa; they could be Jamaican, Trinidadian, Haitian-Creole, or Nigerian,” Brown said. “A lot of our issues are still racially systemic, so when you see that the Black/African American group in the census is the only group that’s not broken down into subcategory, it’s pretty jarring.”
Teamwork was a crucial part of the intensive project with Robson’s students taking an assessment to understand their strengths so they could work cohesively together.
“Even if you don’t want to work in community nutrition, it’s important to have this experience because at some point, you’ll have to work with the community or someone you have to collect data for,” Keenan said.
Robson said 100% of the credit goes to the students, and she admires their drive to succeed.
“I was incredibly proud,” Robson said. “I love seeing the growth in students over the course of a semester and to have them step up to this project is really cool. That’s why I teach.”
Abigail Malle called the hands-on collaboration of conducting a community needs assessment satisfying and well beyond what a student can learn from a textbook.
“You learn when you really apply yourself — and there’s a lot not mentioned in a textbook — the teamwork, the collaboration, the amount of time it takes to create these questions,” Malle said. “When you read in a textbook it might seem simple, but it’s hard work. It’s also really rewarding.”
Holly Delagrange found it valuable to take part in a project with the potential to have a profound impact.
“This was our first real-world project,” Delagrange said. “Everything else has just been for school for a grade. This is the first thing we’ve done that’s going out into the world for other people to use. It was a good experience to talk to real people, get real data and know that it will be used going forward.”