Nearly 40 million people regularly rely on our country’s food banks and pantries. Many also suffer from increased rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular 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, which underlies the importance of fresh produce availability in food pantries. In reality, a recent study from researchers at the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity revealed that 85% of food pantries customers say fresh fruits and vegetables are important to have on every visit.
Unfortunately, even with access to fresh produce, many pantry shoppers report not knowing how to prepare vegetables in a way that is both healthy and appealing to their families. What happens when a pantry customer gets a stock of healthy items but doesn’t have the knowledge to prepare them? It’s a question Dr. Susan Evans and Peter Clarke of the University of Southern California wondered as they traveled across the country to help food banks increase their supply of fresh produce.
For nearly 20 years, the couple worked in 44 states and helped establish 159 fresh produce collection and distribution programs. While visiting Albuquerque, New Mexico, they met Wanda, a 44-year-old mother of three who lived with her boyfriend Ralph.
“We watched Wanda happily receive her three bags of pantry food, including 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 visited Wanda’s kitchen the following week, we were surprised to find that the cauliflower and sweet potatoes were completely unused and starting to spoil.”
“Look,” Wanda said, “I have 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 very 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. By the way, two heads of cauliflower? Who can handle that?”
The pair began talking to other food bank customers to find out how common Wanda’s concerns were. Four trends quickly emerged.
- Many of the vegetables on offer, from rutabagas to broccoli, were a mystery to customers.
- The spikes in supply were overwhelming, like getting a five-pound bag of carrots and trying to use everything.
- Food makers felt stuck in a rut and relied on a few comfortable recipes while their families wanted variety.
- Available recipes were seen as too complex and demanding.
“Wanda and other pantry patrons like her did ring a bell in our heads, which we should have heard sooner,” Evans said. “Our efforts to build greater capacity for supply-side distribution of fresh vegetables would crash and burn if we didn’t improve demand-side capabilities, in Wanda’s kitchen and in the kitchens of millions of others across the country. .”
In 2006, Evans and Clarke . received a four-year scholarship of $800,000 from the predecessor of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, to develop a tool called “Quick! Help for Meals,” a computer system added to food pantries delivered and where messages were adapted to create customized booklets of recipes and food tips, individually designed for the needs and preferences of each household.Although successful, the practice of distributing printed information was increasingly replaced by digital options against the time the initial grant expired.
While several food banks and banks provide additional resources to customers, many, in conjunction with Extension programs from Land-grant Universities, Evans and Clarke, set out to take a more tech-savvy approach: putting healthy recipes in the palm of the customer’s hands through their smart device. It was a wise move. Research shows that 76% of adults with incomes less than $30,000 a 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 would allow users to select the ingredients available and create a virtual cookbook of healthy recipes. The idea came to fruition with a five-year AFRI award of $1.3 million from NIFA in 2012.
Informed by pantry patrons, chefs and a culinary school, the team developed VeggieBook, an app featuring more than 250 plant-based recipes, along with nearly 80 Secrets to Better Eating — general tips on more nutritious food and strategies for budget-friendly grocery shopping.
“We took everyday lessons from academic sources and rewrote them into words and images that ordinary people can understand,” Evans says. “Careful planning and testing with pantry customers contributed to every screen in the app.”
When opening the VeggieBook app, users will see a logo first, followed quickly by the option to create a new VeggieBook with a list of 10 vegetables most commonly distributed in food pantries. Users select the ingredients they have and go through a series of prompts that result in a virtual recipe book based on available ingredients, cooking and flavor preferences, health restrictions, and other factors. Users can then choose to keep suggested recipes or drop them from their virtual cookbook, resulting in a collection tailored to their interests.
View this app walk through†
“VeggieBook quickly comes to the rescue of cooks because it’s as close as their phone, a device they use dozens of times a day,” Evans says. “Printed recipes and other paper-based meal advice, on the other hand, are often tucked away in a cupboard or kitchen drawer, hidden from view when needed most.”
The work is particularly relevant today as food prices begin to rise higher and concerns about food insecurity mount, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Achieving global food security is a USDA priority† According to the USDA Economic Research Service10.5%, or 13.8 million, of U.S. households were food insecure at some point in 2020. Mississippi sees highest rate of food insecurity† Exacerbated by the pandemic, the state’s food insecurity rate was over 22% in 2020. A newly released Mississippi State University film series examines such issues in The Hungriest State† The first of the three-part series debuted in April.
Evans and Clarke have worked with community-based partners in California, Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and other places, and are looking to expand the use of the app.
If you want to download and use the app, it is free and available in the app stores. Look for the steaming green pot icon when searching for VeggieBook.
To learn more about this innovative use of technology to help food pantries customers gain confidence in the kitchen 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.