by Helana Hoover-Litty, MS, RD
Access to nutritious food is essential to health and well-being. That access is a challenge for many people in our state who struggle to meet basic needs and put food on the table for their families. To support the health and wellness of the people we serve, the Connecticut Food Bank has been working to improve the nutritional quality of the foods we distribute. But before we could improve the nutritional quality of the food, we had to have a way to measure it.
We chose to adapt a system already in use by the Greater Boston Food Bank. We call it “Item Nutrition Quality” or INQ for short. This system assigns food to different categories, such as beverages, vegetables, dairy, animal proteins and snacks, then compares the nutritional value within each category. The ranking within each category is accomplished by the use of a calculation that takes into consideration the percentage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended daily allowance of nutrients customarily provided by foods in the specific category as well as levels of salt, saturated fats and sugar. Points are assigned for various nutrients in the products, which are then ranked on a scale from 1 to 3 with a ranking of 1 being most nutritious. This system uses the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is an evidenced based dietary recommendation provided by USDA.
In addition to the three INQ categories developed by the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Connecticut Food Bank has added three categories. A category for foods eaten in small amounts, such as condiments and spices, was created along with one for non-food items like pet food and toiletries. In response to the evidence that over consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages contributes to the obesity epidemic, it was decided to create a category for such foods. This category is called “Negative Nutritional Value” and consists of foods such as soda, fruit drinks and candy. We acknowledge that foods in this category can be consumed occasionally in moderation as part of a healthy diet but that they provide no nutrition other than calories.
Currently the INQ categories are:
1 High Nutritional Value
2 Moderate Nutritional Value
3 Minimal Nutritional Value
4 No Nutritional Value
5 Negative Nutritional Value
6 Non Food
The Connecticut Food Bank began in 2011 to record and track INQ values for the food we receive. This helps us learn how well we are doing at sourcing healthy foods.
When the Connecticut Food Bank began tracking INQ, we set a nutrition quality goal that at least 80% of the food we distribute be healthy, having an INQ of 1 or 2. Some of our programs that focus on providing food to children have higher goals. Today we are meeting most of the nutrition goals we set in 2011, and are now working to improve nutrition in other ways.
Increasing the amount of fresh produce we distribute is one way we are increasing nutrition values for our clients. Last year, 35% of the food we distributed was fresh produce, up from 10.5% in 2010. We are also working to provide nutrition education as part of our programs. By partnering with nutrition educators from the University of Saint Joseph and UCONN, we have provided nutrition classes as part of our GROW! Truck and Mobile Pantry programs that help clients make better food choices and make better use of the food provided through our programs.
The Connecticut Food bank is working hard to provide food that supports healthy outcomes for the people we serve. By improving the nutritional quality of our food, we are not only helping our clients access food they need, but also reduce their risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
Helana Hoover-Litty, MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian and a volunteer with the Connecticut Food Bank