Produce donation program improves health and nutrition at food pantries

Food pantries provide much-needed relief for individuals and families that have to deal with food insecurity. But pantries often rely on donations of canned and packaged foods with limited nutritional value. Growing Together Illinois, a program from Illinois Extension aims to provide fresh produce to food pantry clientele across the state.

A University of Illinois research team evaluated the program and found it to be successful in improving the availability and distribution of fresh, nutritious foods.

Growing Together Illinois began in 2017 as part of a multi-state effort. It is implemented in collaboration between Extension’s Master Gardener program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed).

“The program donates fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs to the pantries. The overall goal is improved food access, but we also provide nutrition education and other support,” says Trinity Allison, SNAP-Ed senior program lead and co-author of the study.

Produce is grown in community gardens run by volunteers with assistance from Master Gardeners, who bring knowledge and expertise on planning, planting, maintaining, and harvesting. SNAP-Ed staff assists pantries with handling and promoting the produce and provides education on usage, recipes, and suggestions for bundling with other meal items.

“From the interviews, we learned some of the things the Growing Together team was doing to overcome common barriers pantries experience with donations. For example, they often lack storage space and may only be open a few hours each week,” she states.

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