December 5, 2019

Food pantries can help improve nutrition, diet quality

Eicher Miller Heather Eicher-Miller, an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences’ Department of Nutrition Science and director of Indiana’s Emergency Food Resource Network, (Purdue University photo) Download image

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 37 million people nationally live in food-insecure households. For those who visit food pantries, the frequency of their visits matters.

That’s the conclusion of a study led by a Purdue University nutrition scientist who studies food insecurity and access to adequate and safe foods.

Heather Eicher-Miller, an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences’ Department of Nutrition Science and director of Indiana’s Emergency Food Resource Network, led a research team that looked at diets and health issues affecting 270 participants at 27 food pantries in Indiana. The team’s study appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“The dietary quality was higher for those who used the food pantry more frequently,” Eicher-Miller said. “Dietary quality is an important risk factor for chronic disease, so it may potentially have an impact on health.”

Study participants had very poor diet quality scores that were much lower than the average American, which means the variety and types of foods they ate fell far below dietary recommendations.

Diet quality is related to chronic diseases and their risk factors, such as hypertension, obesity and high cholesterol.  Presenting with these risk factors increase the chances for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other poor health outcomes. The study showed that groups who had less access to food had greater chances of having heart disease.

“All of the food groups are important and offer essential nutrients, so all are key,” Eicher-Miller said. “We determined that those who visited food pantries more than once a month consumed a more healthful mix of foods or variety and quality compared with those who visited less often.”

Eicher-Miller said donating money is preferred by most food pantries, as it allows more flexibility in purchasing certain foods they know are frequently chosen and used by families.

“If you specifically want to donate food, items with little added sugar, saturated fat and sodium, which are the nutrients that all Americans should limit, can help to improve the dietary quality of the foods offered at food pantries,” Eicher-Miller said.

“The inventory at a food pantry may change dramatically depending on what donations or shipments they receive. Many donations from businesses and organizations, including grocery stores and government agencies, may give them a large supply of certain items.”

Yibin Liu of the University at Buffalo, Yumin Zhang of Purdue University, and Daniel T. Remley of Ohio State University assisted with this study. This research was funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Writer: Matthew Oates, 765-496-2571,, @mo_oates

Source: Heather Eicher-Miller, 765-494-6815,

Note to Journalists: For a copy of the study, please contact Matthew Oates at 

Frequency of Food Pantry Use Is Associated with Diet Quality among Indiana Food Pantry Clients

Yibin Liu, PhD, CPH; Yumin Zhang, MS; Daniel T. Remley, MSPH, PhD; Heather A. Eicher-Miller, PhD

Background: Food-insecure households access food pantries to receive supplemental food, yet limited examination of the relationships of food pantry use or household food insecurity with diet quality and health has been documented among food pantry users.

Objective: This study investigated the associations among food pantry use, household food security, body mass index, self-reported chronic disease and related conditions, and diet quality among food pantry users.

Design: Food pantry users in central Indiana were recruited for this cross-sectional study and surveyed for sociodemographic characteristics, food pantry use frequency, household food security, diet quality, and chronic disease and related conditions. Measurements of height and weight were obtained.

Participants/setting: Data from 270 participants, aged 21 to 80 years, were collected from June 2014 to December 2015.

Statistical analyses performed: Healthy Eating Index-2010 (HEI-2010) total score, component scores, and body mass index were analyzed across food pantry use and household food security groups using multiple linear regression. Odds of reporting chronic disease and related conditions were compared across food pantry use and household food security groups using logistic regression.

Results: Visiting food pantries more than once a month was associated with higher HEI- 2010 total score (P1⁄40.03) and Total Protein Foods score (P1⁄40.05) than visiting less often. HEI-2010 scores were not significantly different across household food security groups. Body mass index was not different across food pantry use groups or household food security groups. Household food insecurity was associated with higher odds of reporting heart disease (age- and sex-adjusted odds ratio1⁄42.65; 95% CI, 1.05-6.69) compared with household food security.

Conclusions: Food pantry use frequency differentiates diet quality, and household food security status differentiates chronic disease and related conditions among low- resource food pantry user subpopulations.

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