Encourage the Selection of Healthy Food Choices


We are small and have more flexibility. Our guests shop on their own and are able to take what they want and need. – Sue Steinmetz, McFarland Food Pantry




Offer flexibility

By providing some flexibility in choices within food categories and supporting guests in making their selections, food pantries can ensure the food they make available to guests is appropriate for dietary needs and food preferences, and will be consumed. Keep in mind, that not all guests may be aware of pantry policies that offer flexibility in selection. consider posting a sign telling guests to let a volunteer know if they have questions or concerns about what is offered at the pantry.

Offer incentives to encourage selection of healthier choices

Giving rewards or incentives for making healthy food choices has been shown to be a successful strategy for improving dietary behavior in other settings like grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Because food pantry guests are likely motivated by the overall quantity of food received during their visit, incentives would work best when additional food items are given as a result of selecting a particular product. For example, you might provide an unlimited
selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and restrict the amount of sweets or pastries that could be selected. You might offer an extra can of vegetables for every two cans of vegetables selected. Incentives can be included in the pantry nutrition policy and accompanying shopping list documents.

Provide a shopping list to clients

Some pantries must limit the amount of food per food category guests are able to receive based on household size. This “shopping list” or guide provided to guests directly influences the type and quantity of food chosen. Making improvements to your guide to account for recommended dietary patterns as well as rewarding healthier choices can encourage guests to make healthier choices. In addition, this shopping list can serve as a mechanism to guide food procurement.
Ohio State University Extension developed a choice pantry shopping guide based on the DGA. Foods are shelved according to colorcoded food groups and guests are allowed a predetermined number of choices per food group based on household size. The system ensures that guests choose a variety of different foods so that they can provide healthy, balanced meals and snacks for themselves and their households. To fully support this system,
the pantry should be arranged so that food items are shelved according to food groups. The shelves should be color-coded using signs or stickers to designate food groups according to MyPlate. Color coding assists the guests in associating nutrition education messages delivered through MyPlate with the foods they are selecting at the pantry.


Client shopping checklist


Make healthy choices more visible

The way food is organized in a grocery store has been shown to impact purchasing behavior. For example, when more shelf space is given to a particular product, it increases sales of that product. In addition, strategic placement of one product over another can encourage its selection. The same principles can be applied in food pantries. To encourage the selection of healthier foods, consider the following strategies:

  • Increase the overall shelf space for foods that fall under the category of “foods and nutrients to increase”: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-sodium, no- or low-fat milk and milk products, and lean proteins such as beans and nuts, poultry, fish, and eggs.
  • Place healthier food products at the beginning or front of the food pantry so they are the first things that people see and select. This will help ensure guest carts or bags are not too full for healthier products once they reach the end of the pantry.
  • Separate low-sodium and whole-grain packaged foods from regular items and use signage to clearly label these alternate products.
  • Display fresh produce in an appealing and accessible way with attractive containers like baskets or wood crates.
  • Highlight local and garden produce.

Tools_Red   Food Group Categories and Product Listing

Meeting special dietary needs and preferences

Guest food preferences will vary widely depending on a number of factors including health conditions or cultural and religious beliefs. By taking into consideration common dietary needs such as low-sodium, gluten free, vegetarian/vegan, Halal or Kosher, food pantries can ensure they are being inclusive of all possible audiences served.

It is recommended that pantries gather feedback about what dietary needs and preferences are most common. This can be done formally by distributing a survey to all pantry guests, or informally by placement of a suggestion box or by capturing guest requests. It is important that food packages include information such as Nutrition Facts and ingredients lists to help guests with special dietary needs or preferences.

Tools_RedMeeting special dietary needs
How to read nutrition facts label  


Another tool that can be used with Guests with special dietary needs is a handout on Dialysis and Food Bank Shopping