Researchers Nudge Healthy Food Selection in Food Pantries

Grocery stores have long deployed insights from behavioral economics to influence the purchase of targeted foods. But can similar tactics work in community food panties to nudge clients to make healthier food choices?

Researchers from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab have uncovered ways to do just that. Prioritizing the placement of healthier options and keeping foods in their original boxes significantly impacted the selections made by food pantry clients, revealing new tactics to improve food security for low-income populations.

“Food pantries offer a unique opportunity to nudge those most at risk of hunger to select more nutrient-dense foods,” said lead author Norbert Wilson, professor at Auburn University and a former visiting professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management where he conducted the research with Cornell University professors David Just and Brian Wansink and doctoral candidate Jeffery Swigert.

Low-income populations that most often frequent food pantries also suffer disproportionally from the most severe food-related health problems, including obesity and nutrient-deficiency.  Food pantries offer access to food while allowing patrons to choose what they want based on availability, a method that preserves dignity but can limit options for nutrient-dense foods.

The researchers placed protein bars in the dessert section alongside less nutritious foods like cakes and brownies and observed the behavior of 443 visitors to a New York State food pantry. The findings published in the Journal of Public Health show that applying easy, low-cost food marketing techniques in pantry displays can lead more clients to select healthful foods.

To nudge selection of the bars, the researchers implemented two techniques. First, they placed the bars so they appeared first in the dessert section. Prioritizing the bars first increased selection by 46 percent compared to when placed at the end of the section.

Next, the researchers kept the bars in their original boxes instead of repackaging the individually wrapped bars in clear plastic wrap.  Keeping the product in its original packaging removed the stigma of receiving the product from the food pantry, according to the researchers, and resulted in an increased selection by nearly 59 percent.

“Food pantries offer choice, much like grocery stores and cafeterias, and research has shown that choices are tied very closely with our environment,” said Just. “For this reason, low-cost techniques that increase visibility and convenience of healthy foods are effective in increasing selection of these target foods.”

When both techniques were implemented — placed first in the section and kept in original packaging — the protein bars were even more popular. The findings offer guidance to food pantry organizers that these easy-to-implement strategies can have increase healthiness of the foods that pantry clients take with them to feed themselves and their families.

“While food pantry organizers receive a mix of products, some more healthy than others, this study shows that they can help nudge clients to select those foods that are on the healthier side by making them more convenient — placing them first in line — and appealing— keeping them in the original packaging,” said Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

The research was supported by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


Melissa Osgood

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