Nearly 40 million people rely on our nation’s food banks and pantries on a regular basis. Many also suffer elevated rates of obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and other diet-related conditions. For many, food banks and pantries are their first defense against food insecurity, and the pandemic has led to an increase in the number of households visiting these facilities for support.
North Carolina State University Extension discusses food insecurity and the importance of food banks and pantries in this webinar.
Multiple studies have shown that consuming fruits and vegetables can fight obesity and promote overall health, underlying the importance of the availability of fresh produce at food pantries. In fact, a recent study from researchers at the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity revealed that 85% of food pantry clients say that fresh fruits and vegetables are important to have at every visit.
Unfortunately, even with access to fresh produce, many pantry clients report not knowing how to prepare vegetables in ways that are both healthy and appealing to their families. What happens when a pantry client is provided a stock of healthy items but lacks the knowledge to prepare them? It’s a question Drs. Susan Evans and Peter Clarke at the University of Southern California asked themselves when traveling the country, helping food banks increase their supply of fresh produce.
Over nearly 20 years, the pair worked in 44 states and helped establish 159 programs to collect and distribute fresh produce. It was during a visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico, that they met Wanda, a 44-year-old mother of three who lived with her boyfriend, Ralph.
“We watched as Wanda cheerily accepted her allotted three bags of pantry foods, which included two heads of cauliflower and six sweet potatoes,” said Evans, who, along with Clarke, arranged to visit Wanda the following week to discuss her meal preparations. “When we toured Wanda’s kitchen the next week, we were surprised to find the cauliflower and sweet potatoes completely unused and starting to spoil.”
“Look,” Wanda said, “I’ve got recipes for these vegetables, but they’re way too complicated for me to follow. Lots of ingredients, many of which I don’t have. Who can afford tahini sauce, whatever that is, or thyme or goat cheese? And the recipes seem really strict. If I left something out, I don’t know what would happen. Probably a mess. I don’t want to disappoint my kids or Ralph. Besides, two heads of cauliflower? Who can deal with that?”
The pair began talking with other food pantry clients to determine just how prevalent were Wanda’s concerns. Four trends quickly emerged.
- Many of the vegetables being provided, from rutabagas to broccoli, were a mystery to clients.
- Surges in supply were overwhelming, like being handed a five-pound bag of carrots and attempting to use it all.
- Food preparers were feeling stuck in a rut, relying on a few comfortable recipes while their families wanted variety.
- Available recipes were seen as too complex and demanding.
“Wanda and other pantry clients like her sounded a bell in our heads, which we should have heard earlier,” Evans said. “Our efforts to build greater capacity for distributing fresh vegetables on the supply side would crash and burn if we didn’t improve capabilities on the demand side, in Wanda’s kitchen and in the kitchens of millions of others across the country.”
In 2006, Evans and Clarke received a four-year, $800,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) predecessor, the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, to develop a tool called “Quick! Help for Meals,” a computer system provided to food pantries that used message tailoring to create customized booklets of recipes and food-use tips, individually designed for each household's needs and preferences. While successful, by the time the initial grant ended, the practice of distributing printed information was being replaced more frequently by digital options.
While several food pantries and banks supply supplemental resources to clients, many in collaboration with Extension programs at Land-grant Universities, Evans and Clarke set out to develop a more tech-savvy approach: putting healthy recipes in the palm of clients’ hands through their smart device. It was a wise move. Research shows that 76% of adults whose income is less than $30,000 per year own a smartphone, and for many, that smartphone is their access to the internet.
Armed with such data, Evans and Clarke decided to develop a mobile app that allows users to select the ingredients they have available and create a virtual cookbook of healthy recipes. The idea came to fruition with a five-year, $1.3 million AFRI award from NIFA in 2012.
Informed by pantry clients, chefs and a culinary school, the team developed VeggieBook, an app with more than 250 vegetable-based recipes, along with nearly 80 Secrets to Better Eating – general tips about more nutritious eating and strategies for budget-wise food shopping.
“We culled everyday lessons from academic sources and reframed them in words and pictures that ordinary people can understand,” said Evans. “Careful planning and testing with pantry clients contributed to every screen in the app.”
Upon opening the VeggieBook app, users see first a logo, quickly followed by the option to create a new VeggieBook that lists 10 vegetables most frequently distributed at food pantries. Users select the ingredients they have and proceed through a series of prompts that results in a virtual recipe book based on available ingredients, cooking and flavor preferences, health restrictions and other factors. Users can then opt to keep suggested recipes or drop them from their virtual cookbook, resulting in a collection catered to their interests.
Watch this app walk-through.
“VeggieBook comes quickly to the aid of cooks because it’s as close as their phone, a device they consult scores of times every day,” said Evans. “By contrast, printed recipes and other paper-based meal advice are often shut away in a cupboard or kitchen drawer, hidden from view when needed most.”
The work is particularly pertinent today as food prices begin to rise higher and food insecurity worries increase, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Establishing global food security is a USDA priority. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 10.5%, or 13.8 million, of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2020. Mississippi sees the highest rate of food insecurity. Exacerbated by the pandemic, the state’s food insecurity rate was more than 22% in 2020. A newly released film series by Mississippi State University examines such issues in The Hungriest State. The first of the three-part series debuted in April.
Evans and Clarke have collaborated with community-based partners in California, Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and other places, and are looking to expand use of the app further.
If you would like to download and use the app, it is free and available at the app stores. Look for the steaming green pot icon when searching VeggieBook.
To learn more about this innovative use of technology in helping food pantry clients become more kitchen confident while increasing consumption of healthy foods, join Evans and Clarke for the latest edition of NIFA’s Nutrition Security Webinar Series, where they will discuss the development, launch and future plans of VeggieBook on Tuesday, June 7, at 3:30 p.m. EDT.