From Hallways to Refrigerators: Healthy Communities Addresses Barriers to Distributing Healthy Foods in the Charitable Food System

Katherine Seals, Holston, Denise, Freightman, Jamila

Katherine Seals, Jamila Freightman and Denise Holston

In 2018, the LSU AgCenter entered into a five-year cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to address the nutrition and physical activity environments of six rural Louisiana parishes with an obesity rate over 40% (Assumption, St. Helena, Tensas, Madison, Morehouse and East Carroll). Through the AgCenter’s Cooperative Extension Healthy Communities initiative, multilevel, community-driven approaches have been utilized to identify and implement policy, systems and environmental (PSE) change strategies with the goal of promoting healthy behaviors among residents and improving obesity rates and quality of life.

During the first two years of the program, the CDC Healthy Communities team conducted various assessments across food system sectors to better understand the local food system needs of each community. Extension agents identified charitable food sites — food pantries, commodity distribution sites and prepared meal sites — in each CDC Healthy Communities parishes, and a needs assessment was conducted with each site to understand client needs and barriers to stocking healthy foods. Additionally, food procurement data provided by the Food Bank of Northeast Louisiana (FBNELA) was assembled to assess the healthfulness of foods procured from the food bank for three food pantries in the Northeast Region.

When assessments were completed in February of 2020, there were a total of 19 charitable food sites serving CDC Healthy Communities parishes, including food pantries, prepared meal sites and federal commodity distribution sites. Site administrators included mostly faith-based organizations, Councils on Aging, local nonprofits, community organizations and extension offices. Sites reported the number of clients (people served) in terms of families and/or individuals. We found that a total of 4,242 individuals and 1,614 families were served every month by food pantries, meal sites and commodity distribution sites.

Most food pantries and commodity distribution sites were found to only operate once or twice each month, and most prepared meal sites were operational multiple times a month, with some open several days a week. Almost all food distribution sites (n=15) relied on some form of volunteers to conduct site operations, such as delivery of food supply to sites and community members. About half the sites had paid employees or support from local police jury members.

Inventory data provided by the FBNELA revealed that meat and dairy products were the most procured items by the three pantries in terms of quantity. Healthfulness of the meat and dairy products varied from grilled chicken filets to pork patties and processed cheese loaves. We also found that only one of the three partner pantries had been procuring fresh fruits and vegetables regularly from the Northeast Regional Food Bank.

Sites were also asked to identify their three greatest needs. Refrigeration, storage and food were most frequently cited as a need. Volunteers, funding and direct education were also reported as needs; however, equipment and storage were the primary concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the need for more storage since many pantries were reporting an increase in the number of food pantry clients. In one community, we found that due to a lack of refrigeration units, one food pantry would often resort to storing food in hallways and turning down the air conditioning to keep foods fresh overnight for distribution day. Stories such as this highlight the barriers that the charitable food system must overcome in order to deliver quality, healthy foods to its community. To view the full Food Systems Assessment report visit

Guided by these results, the CDC Healthy Communities program sought to work with charitable food sites to identify solutions to increase capacity to procure and stock healthier food items. As a result of these partnerships, food pantry partners received shelving, refrigeration units, commercial-sized freezers and storage sheds to facilitate their ability to serve more clients and, thus, better respond to clients’ needs. Seven food pantries have since increased capacity to procure healthier foods by installing new refrigeration and storage, and four food pantries have adopted policies to ensure healthfulness of donated and procured foods. To further our efforts, CDC Healthy Communities has provided technical assistance and developed resources related to client-choice model implementation, food safety and nutrition guidelines in food pantries. Since implementation, additional pantries have begun partnerships with the CDC Healthy Communities program to explore opportunities to improve healthfulness of distributed foods.

In addition to capacity expansion, strong partnerships have led to the creation of innovative solutions to address the healthfulness of the food served in the charitable food system. One food pantry in Morehouse Parish installed on-site produce garden beds that can be harvested for distribution to pantry clients, and a new AgCenter pilot program in development, Grow a Row to Share, will allow local producers to donate a portion of their garden to local charitable food sites for distribution.

Formative data collection efforts proved to be a crucial step in establishing effective partnerships within the charitable food system. Data driven approaches allowed for each partnership to develop solutions that fit the specific needs of their site and have the greatest impact. Partnerships have led to increased storage capacity, adoption of nutrition policies and implementation of new interventions to connect locally sourced foods directly to community members.

Katherine Seals is a research associate for LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities, Jamila Freightman is an extension associate in the LSU School of Nutrition and Food Sciences and Denise Holston is an assistant professor in the LSU School of Nutrition and Food Sciences.

(This article appears in the spring 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

Seedlings pop out of the dirt in a new garden.

Garden beds have been installed in Morehouse Parish at a local food pantry. Photo by Cecilia Stevens

Boxes of food sit on top of a table.

The Greater Food Bank of Baton Rouge supplied boxes of items for the St. Helena food pantry. Photo by Marquetta Anderson

A woman opens the door to an industrial refrigerator.

A refrigeration unit has been installed in a St. Helena food pantry with funding from the CDC Healthy Communities program. Photo by Marquetta Anderson

6/21/2022 2:00:25 PM
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