Addressing Hunger and Health Equity: The Open Door's Healthy Food Policy
The Open Door is a food shelf located in Eagan that is tackling hunger in Dakota County by improving access to healthy, fresh food for its clients. To meet this goal, The Open Door adopted a Healthy Food Policy in 2013 that commits the organization to: removing food with low- to no-nutritional value; offering healthy food choices at staff meetings, events, and volunteer engagement activities; and engaging the public in changing policy and the food system to address barriers to healthy food access at the community level.
Why create a Healthy Food Policy?
A 2013 survey revealed that 70 percent of respondents’ households served by The Open Door have a family member with at least one chronic diet-related disease such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Nonperishable foods in the traditional food shelf environment are high in sodium, fat, and added sugars, which can exacerbate a client’s diabetes or high blood pressure. Outside of the food shelf environment, grocery stores have low nutrition and “empty calorie” foods, which are among the cheapest to purchase for low-income families. The Open Door’s Healthy Food Policy addresses the root causes of hunger: by procuring and distributing healthy foods and discouraging unhealthy foods, clients are able to maximize the nutritional value of the foods they consume and are better able to make diet-related choices that contribute to improved health.
Hunger in Minnesota
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that during 2012-14, 10.4 percent of Minnesota households experienced food insecurity, meaning that they were not able to get a sufficient amount of food due to a lack of money or other resources.
One of the critical resources to helping address food insecurity is food shelves that operate around the state. According to Hunger Solutions Minnesota, in 2014 there were 3.34 million visits to 300 food shelves across Minnesota, which equates to 9,000 people daily seeking food assistance.
What were the challenges to adopting and implementing the Healthy Food Policy?
Implementing the Healthy Food Policy came with a series of logistical challenges. The Open Door had to employ multiple approaches to sourcing fresh food, including purchasing produce from local farms and Community Supported Agriculture, a tactic that The Open Door had not used before. Additional coolers and freezers then had to be purchased to hold the increased amount of perishable foods. Finally, in order to measure progress, The Open Door had to change its tracking system to measure perishable and nonperishable foods separately. The Open Door also experienced political challenges such as countering negative feedback from key stakeholders who were worried about “limiting the choice” of food shelf clients. The Open Door’s critical message was that unhealthy foods are too readily available to low income people. By shifting the organization’s focus to healthy foods, The Open Door actually expands client choice by making it easier for them to access a variety of healthy foods not previously available in traditional retail or food shelf environments.
What was the impact on The Open Door’s clients?
After the Healthy Food Policy was adopted, The Open Door surveyed a sample of its clients and discovered that over three-quarters of the 166 clients surveyed (78%) were aware of the Healthy Food Policy and most (88%) agreed with it. In addition, over half (55%) noticed that there were different foods available at the food shelf. Most clients (86%) were also satisfied with the various foods available through the food shelf and requested even more fruits, vegetables, dairy, and eggs.
What should organizations consider before adopting a healthy food policy?
The Open Door learned a number of lessons that might be helpful for organizations considering a healthy food policy:
- Weigh organizational readiness for adopting a policy and increasing healthy food options. An organization that anticipates strong opposition or without adequate storage for fresh foods may not be ready for a formal policy. Instead, it can convey its intentions to provide more healthy options by sourcing fresh foods and providing education on the link between diet and health and clients’ barriers to accessing healthy foods.
- Consider various options for sourcing healthy foods. It is unlikely that one source will be able to meet all of an organization’s healthy food needs; therefore, organizations should investigate multiple avenues for sourcing healthy foods, such as food banks and food drives, retail rescue, and partnership with local farms and community gardens. They also need to educate individual and organizational donors about the need for healthy foods.
- Communicate with stakeholders. Given that healthy food policies could be designed to eliminate certain types of unhealthy food from sourcing and donation, it is critical to secure the support of all stakeholders throughout the process, including board members, clients, staff, volunteers, and donors. The Open Door developed a strong communication plan to inform their volunteers and donors about their policy and the inclusion of more healthy foods through emails, press releases, signage, trainings, feedback sessions, and other engagement activities.
- Gather feedback about healthy food policies. Organizations that implement policies intended to increase access to healthy foods should gather feedback or collect data on the impact of the changes they have made. This can be done through tracking of donations and total inventory, as well as surveys, focus groups, or informal one-on-one conversations with clients or observations.
What’s next for The Open Door?
The Open Door continues to advocate for improved access to healthy foods for its clients. In 2015, The Open Door coordinated a Healthy Food in Hunger Relief survey with full participation from all 10 food shelves in Dakota County and published a comprehensive toolkit for “Creating Healthier Environments in Food Shelves.” Wilder Research administered the study. The report, with findings from the study, and the Healthy Food Shelf Toolkit are available here. The organization is also a leader in policy and systems change through its newest initiative, the local food policy network Homegrown South.
Nick Stuber is a Research Associate at Wilder Research. He works on a variety of research and evaluation studies in human services and community development, including public health-related initiatives.
Margaret Pérez is the Food Access & Equity Manager at The Open Door in Eagan, Minnesota. Her work for the food shelf improves healthy food access for the low-income people they serve. She is also the coordinator of a new local food policy network serving Dakota County called Homegrown South, which seeks to create a healthier food system in the south metro through advocacy.
The Open Door’s work is supported by the Health Equity in Prevention (HEiP) initiative of the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Nancy Wester.