Charitable Food System

The US food banking system, also known as the emergency food system or charitable food system, provides food at no cost to over 40 million people each year. This system is comprised of:

  • A network of over 200 food banks: regional organizations that source, warehouse, and distribute food. The majority of US food banks belong to Feeding America.
  • Over 60,000 community agencies: smaller, local organizations that provide food directly to individuals and families. Most community agencies are located in faith-based settings, community centers, or schools.
  • Over 49,000 of the community agencies are food pantries (also known as food shelves): a place where people can obtain groceries at no cost. Other agencies are congregate meal sites (also known as soup kitchens), where people can eat a prepared meal or residential programs.

Until recently, there has been relatively little research on the role of charitable food in addressing food insecurity, and few standards for nutritional quality have existed to guide donations and food distribution within the system.

The evidence is building that clients rely on the charitable food system for chronic food support. Data from Rudd Center researchers has shown that 74% of food pantry clients report that they have used their food pantry for a year or more, and 77% visit their food pantry at least once a month. More than half of clients report getting half or more of their total food from the pantry in the last 6 months. These households also have a high burden of diet-related health conditions, with 66% reporting that they or someone in their household has diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or is overweight.

In this rapidly-changing setting, the Rudd Center has partnered with food banks, food pantries, and other agencies supporting the charitable food system. Current work addresses policies and interventions to improve both healthfulness and client-centeredness within the system.


Key Research Studies

Cooksey-Stowers K, Martin K, Schwartz M. Client Preferences for Nutrition Interventions in Food Pantries. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 2018 September 1-18

Cooksey-Stowers K, Read M, Wolff M, Martin K, McCabe M, Schwartz M. Food Pantry Staff Attitudes about Using a Nutrition Rating System to Guide Client Choice.  Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 2018 September 1-16

Martin K, Wolff M, Callahan K, Schwartz M. Supporting Wellness at Pantries: Development of a Nutrition Stoplight System for Food Banks and Food Pantries. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2018 May 1-7

Healthy Eating Research Nutrition Guidelines

Healthy Eating Research Nutrition Guidelines:

In 2019-2020, Healthy Eating Research commissioned a national expert panel, co-chaired by Marlene Schwartz and Hilary Seligman. We reviewed nutrition ranking systems and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and developed a single set of standards that are evidence-based and responsive to the unique environment of the charitable food system. Dr. Caspi served as a panel member.
Feeding America announced in February 2020 that they are recommending these standards to their network.

Charitable Food Nutrition Index (CFNI)

The Charitable Food Nutrition Index (CFNI) summarizes the overall nutritional quality of a set of foods into a single score. It is based on the percentages of ranked foods according to HER Guidelines or SWAP tools, and it can be applied at all levels of the charitable food system: food ordered, procured, stocked, or distributed to clients.

Food Pantries

Supershelf Initiative:

The SuperShelf initiative is a Minnesota-based collaborative partnership which transform food pantries to create welcome environments for communities to access healthy and appealing food. Using a multi-step systems change process, SuperShelf works with food pantries (called food shelves in Minnesota) to:

  • Create an environment that is client centered, promoting and respecting individual choice
  • Increase access to a variety of healthy, culturally appropriate food
  • Apply behavioral economic principles promote healthy food choice
  • Create an appealing environment by transforming the physical space
  • Meet specific SuperShelf standards, methods, and values
  • Make the healthiest choice the easiest choice for all

Dr. Caspi is leading the evaluation of SuperShelf. In an ongoing NIH-funded group randomized study (R01HL136640), the research team is evaluating whether transforming food pantries results in improvements in the nutritional quality of food provided in transformed pantries, selected by clients, and consumed by clients.

Supershelf Evidence Base:

  • Caspi CE, Canterbury M, Grannon K, Bain J, Bohen L, Peterson H, Kottke T. A behavioral economics approach to improving healthy food selection among food pantry clients. Public Health Nutrition. 2019; 22(12):2303-2313.
  • Pilot study results
  • Evaluation final report

Food Assortment Scoring Tool (FAST)

Another useful measure is the Food Assortment Scoring Tool (FAST), a flexible, valid tool to monitor the nutritional quality of food in pantries. The tool can be used by food pantries themselves as it arrives at the food pantry, as it is stocked onto the shelf, or as it is distributed to clients, according to the needs and preferences of the food pantry. Food is sorted into 13 categories and weighed to create a score of 0-100. Although the FAST is “low-tech” and does not require reading food labels, the FAST measure correlates well with the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index.

Food Pantry Client Survey Projects:

In 2017, SuperShelf partnered with Hunger Solutions Minnesota to produce a statewide survey of over 4,000 clients in 188 food pantries in Minnesota. Each participating food pantry received an individualized report of their clients’ responses. Results show a strong demand for healthy and staple foods at the pantry. Results also demonstrate that clients know how to prepare many healthy foods. They have been used in variety of ways across the state:

  • By food pantry Boards of Directors to inform changes in their food pantries
  • To inform ordering commodities for The Emergency Food Assistance Program
  • To inform food bank distribution policies
  • By local public health agencies to promote policy, systems, and environment change in food pantries, as part of their prevention efforts for obesity and chronic disease
  • To counter stereotypes about food shelf clients and change the discussion about food security

An expanded version of the survey was administered in 2019 in a partnership between SuperShelf, Hunger Solutions Minnesota, and the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Food Banks

Collaborative Projects:

  • The Rudd Center collaborates with Foodshare, a food bank in Connecticut, to promote better nutrition. In May 2018, Dr. Katie Martin, the Vice President & Chief Strategy Officer of Foodshare and Marlene Schwartz were co-authors on a study describing SWAP (Supporting Wellness at Pantries), which was developed to promote nutrition in food pantries. The team has several published and ongoing studies documenting the influence of SWAP.
  • The Partnership for a Healthier America is leading a Healthy Hunger Relief initiative to increase the supply of healthier options and remove the least healthy options from the food banking system. The Rudd Center is working with PHA to measure the changes in nutrition inventory among the participating food banks.



WellSCAN is a suite of digital tools and products made to help food banks and food pantries better identify, rank, and log the nutritional quality of their inventory. WellSCAN is housed, licensed and serviced by the University of Connecticut Digital Experience Group, and includes the WellSCAN Global nutrition database, WellScan Connect API, and the WellSCAN app. Learn more here.