Project update: Foodlink’s ‘The Healthy Choice’ nutrition ranking system

Foodlink was recently featured in the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition‘s January newsletter, about the work we’re doing related to the Rooted in Evidence grant we received last year. Foodlink is implementing our new nutrition ranking system, The Healthy Choice, in our “Front Door” food pantries — the term we use to describe Foodlink’s high-capacity member food pantries across our service area.

The Healthy Choice’s full ranking system can be found on Foodlink’s website, as a key component to its Community Health Commitment.

This grant allows us to educate and train pantry staff about healthy foods, and measure whether the system has a positive health outcome on pantry clients. Below is the text from Foodlink’s entry in the GSCN newsletter:

Rooted in Evidence grantee, Foodlink, is using grant funds to evaluate the implementation of The Healthy Choice nutrition ranking system in four Front Door food pantries, some of their highest-capacity member agencies. Foodlink launched three initiatives to improve the nutritional quality of food that is distributed to clients. One of those programs, “The Healthy Choice,” is a new, evidence-based, whole food-focused nutrition ranking system. The levels include green: choose often, yellow: choose sometimes, and red: choose rarely. The Healthy Choice is used to monitor and improve the proportion of nutritious food taken in by Foodlink, and distributed to network partners. Foodlink is committed to distributing 95% green- and yellow-ranked foods by 2021.

Pantry strategies to achieve this goal include:

• Encouraging donations of green- and yellow-ranked items

• Establishing formalized nutrition/ordering policies that encourage the procurement of green- and yellow-ranked items and encourage red-ranked items to be procured rarely

• Emphasizing green- and/or yellow-ranked items by placing them in multiple areas to provide repeat exposure

• Requiring all pantry staff and volunteers to receive nutrition education within the past year so they have the knowledge and capacity to follow The Healthy Choice system and create healthier pantry environment nudges

As part of this grant, Foodlink is holding educational trainings with pantry staff and volunteers to increase self-efficacy and capacity to implement The Healthy Choice at their respective organizations. Additionally, Foodlink is building client-facing messaging related to The Healthy Choice, including signage on shelves that help clients navigate food choices that are organized by ranking. The messages are simple, accessible to a variety of literacy and language needs, and help to clearly and quickly make healthy choices easy. This funding and partnership will help Foodlink understand if improvements in their network, foods distributed and pantry environment have an impact on pantry-level and client-level outcomes.

Following is a Q&A with Foodlink’s Nutrition Resource Manager Laura Held, MS:

What about The Healthy Choice nutrition ranking excites you most?

Most exciting to me is that The Healthy Choice serves three distinct but interacting purposes: ranking Foodlink product inventory and steering procurement decisions, helping our member agencies and partners choose healthy options for their clients and solicit donations from the community, and helping community members make healthy choices for their families.

At Foodlink we believe, and I personally believe, that it is our responsibility to leverage the power that we wield each year with millions of pounds of food and millions of dollars in food-related assets not just toward ending hunger, but also toward building healthier communities. The Healthy Choice is our guide as we do so.

What do you want to know most about The Healthy Choice and its impacts?

I want to know how easy The Healthy Choice is for pantry staff and volunteers to implement and how worthwhile they find it is to do so. This is critical for Foodlink to move forward with implementation of the ranking in more pantries. I am certain that we will learn numerous ways that we can revise and improve our training, materials and technical assistance.

Our longer-term goal is to be able to assess its efficacy on increasing healthy choices at the client level. And that prospect is extremely exciting. But for our current project with the Gretchen Swanson Center, we will start smaller by learning from focus groups how clients feel about and understand The Healthy Choice at their local pantry.

What will data collection entail over the next six months?

We are collecting data in four ways:

1) Foodlink product order tracking: Does an increase of healthy food at the food bank level increase healthy food ordering by pantries?

2) Pantry staff/volunteer survey: Does staff/volunteer training increase their knowledge, capacity and willingness to follow The Healthy Choice?

3) Pantry observational environment assessment: Do staff/volunteer training, technical assistance and The Healthy Choice materials lead to a healthier pantry environment?

4) Pantry client focus group: Are policy, systems and environmental changes at the pantry level noticed by clients and perceived to impact their choices?

Other than the client focus groups, which will happen once near the end of the grant period, the data collection is occurring at three time periods: Pre, Post, and 6-month follow-up.

What was your biggest take away from the Omaha kick-off meeting in August?

I had not previously received training on Process and Implementation Evaluation, nor Best Practices in Qualitative Methods. This was very helpful and informative for me.

I also greatly enjoyed learning from not only Gretchen Swanson Center staff but also food bank colleagues. I always find it beneficial to hear how other food banks do what they do and what innovative projects they are undertaking. It helps put our work at Foodlink in a broader context and gives me plenty of new ideas!

How has the Gretchen Swanson Center’s evaluation expertise and technical assistance benefited your organization so far?

Working with the Gretchen Swanson Center is invaluable! Staff members’ advice and input empowers me to feel confident as project lead and that I will be able to do similar work without help from the Gretchen Swanson Center in the future.

What are you hoping to do with the results of the evaluation? What is the next step?

We hope that the results will be the springboard toward a broader and deeper implementation of The Healthy Choice in our food pantries. We would like to integrate ranking into more pantries and to be able to assess its efficacy in increasing healthy choices by clients.

We also intend to share our results with the public, with the hope that the information will be useful to the Feeding America network of food banks and the broader anti-hunger and public health community.

Curbside Market team begins new winter schedule

The Curbside Market — Foodlink’s mobile farmers market — has transitioned to its winter schedule, as of Jan. 6.

While the market operates year-round to provide new access points to healthy food in underserved neighborhoods, the winter months are often a challenge for our drivers. Therefore, our weekly schedule is reduced from about 90+ sites during the peak season, to 70+ sites during the winter months. The current schedule runs through March 29, before expanding again in the spring.

WINTER SCHEDULE: Where’s the Curbside Market headed?

The Curbside Market has a fleet of three vehicles, which includes its newest addition — a converted school bus that hit the road this past fall. There are a total of 71 sites this winter, including 58 in Monroe County, and 13 in surrounding counties. There are also 8 weekly stops on Saturdays.

To access the complete and most up-to-date schedule (and map), visit Foodlink’s website. For the latest information on the market about new products, our staff, updates and cancellations, visit us on Facebook or Instagram.

See you soon!

Film screening draws 150+ Rochesterians to discuss hunger, local food system

If a few dozen people showed up to The Little Theatre on Wednesday night for a screening of a documentary about a somber topic — hunger and diet-related illness in America — event organizers likely wouldn’t have been too surprised.

After all, the snow was blowing sideways, the roads were a slippery mess and the temperatures were plunging into the teens. Not an ideal movie night.

The subject matter, however, seemed of high interest to close to 200 Rochesterians who braved the conditions to watch “A Place at the Table” and have a discussion about the challenges of Rochester’s local food system, and the solutions to making it more equitable for all.

Foodlink collaborated with Healthi Kids — an initiative of Common Ground Health, the City of Rochester, WXXI and The Little Theatre to host the free screening. Foodlink’s Mitch Gruber, who also sits on Rochester City Council, told the audience about two examples of local governments in Florida and Oklahoma making bold changes to improve access to healthy foods in their communities. Gruber also said that the city’s new Rochester 2034 Comprehensive Plan includes language about exploring a local or regional food policy council or taskforce.

“This is written into the future of our city — Rochester 2034 — so we have an opportunity to look at what places like Baldwin (Fla.) or Tulsa did, and make them even greater — not just because of the strength of our city, but of our community and the people in the room here,” Gruber said.

The film, released in 2013, explores some of the startling statistics about hunger in America, and the effects and true costs of food insecurity and diet-related illness for our nation. It also broke down complicated issues surrounding the Farm Bill and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and included interviews with experts such as Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Professor and author Janet Poppendieck, Share our Strength founder Billy Shore, Dr. Mariana Chilton, and Marion Nestle — another nenowned professor and author … and many more.

The film explored stories from rural areas in Colorado and Mississippi, and urban poverty in Philadelphia. It touched on the effects of hunger in the classroom, the serious health hazards that stem from poor nutrition, and the struggles of a single mother trying desperately to feed her kids.

The emotional film resonated with the audience, who stuck around after the film to weigh in on some of the barriers that prevent local residents from accessing healthy foods. Easels with the question: “What do you feel are the most pressing challenges related to Rochester’s food system?” were placed around the theatre, and participants placed stickers next to answers such as “Affordability of quality food,” “Lack of framework/structure to address challenges,” and “Building healthy habits for kids.” There was also an option to write in other challenges not previously mentioned.

It was a successful night, but as organizers noted, it was just the beginning.

“I hope that this is just the start of a conversation that extends beyond this group,” said Mike Bulger, Healthy Communities Project Coordinator for Common Ground Health. “I hope that we continue to have a conversation over the next year and beyond and make some awesome change.”

Happy Muffin Day! Foodlink turns 41

Dec. 19 is Muffin Day here at Foodlink, where we celebrate how it all began.

Muffin Day represents the day in 1978 that Foodlink founder Tom Ferraro made a public plea for donated food to support Rochester’s local food pantries. The kind folks at Thomas’ English Muffins responded and Tom went to the factory to pick up a few muffins. The donation, however, was larger than he expected. He had to return to the facility with a borrowed school bus, loaded it up, and the rest is history.

Last year, as Foodlink celebrated a milestone — 40 years of serving the community — we touted our history with a press release, we marked the occasion with a delivery of English Muffins from Thomas’, we spent time at one of our valued member agencies, St. Peter’s Kitchen, and we celebrated as a staff at an Amerks game.

This year, we turned the spotlight around and decided to spend the day thanking others. Yes, Muffin Day is a day to recognize our founder’s vision and legacy and the hard work of our staff, but it’s also important to recognize the dedication of our volunteers, supporters and community partners. Our Community Kitchen made muffins for some of our supporters, and we will spend the day making calls to donors who have recently pledged their support.

If you’ve ever donated, volunteered, attended one of our events, or taken action to raise awareness or address hunger in our communities … thank you. Thank you for walking alongside us and supporting our mission. Your ongoing support is the best gift for which we could ask as we mark 41 years of service.

Happy Muffin Day.

Wegmans raises nearly $700K during Check Out Hunger campaign

The results are in for the 2019 Wegmans Check Out Hunger campaign!

Thanks to the amazing work of Wegmans, their employees and their customers, $699,375 was raised for Foodlink during this fall’s campaign, which ran from Oct. 27 through Nov. 30. The total represents about a $15,000 increase over the previous year.

Foodlink has counted on support from Wegmans’ Check Out Hunger campaign for more than 25 years, and has benefitted from more than $12 million in support.

Thank you to everyone who contributed!

Foodlink statement in response to the USDA’s SNAP rule change

Foodlink released the following statement on Dec. 6, 2019, following the USDA’s announcement that it has finalized its proposed rule change for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) regarding Able-bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs).

Foodlink joins dozens of anti-hunger organizations and a bipartisan faction of elected officials in condemning the USDA’s new rule affecting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients known as Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs).

Since 1996, ABAWDs who do not work a minimum of 20 hours per week can only receive three months of benefits over a three-year span. Because of the stringent nature of this rule, states can apply for waivers for individuals living in communities with higher unemployment rates. This new rule tightens the eligibility requirements for waivers, thus limiting states’ ability to apply for them based on their local economy and labor market. Ultimately, it weakens SNAP.

READ MORE: A statement from Hunger Solutions NY

On a national level, nearly 700,000 people would lose SNAP benefits – a vital lifeline for low-income individuals who struggle to put food on the table. In New York, this rule change could affect up to 107,000 people[1], including a significant portion of the 5,200 ABAWDs in Monroe County. As the regional food bank that supports hundreds of food pantries, meal programs and shelters that serve thousands of local SNAP recipients, we expect hunger to rise, and the health of our neighbors to suffer as a direct result of this proposal.

It’s true that the economy has improved overall, but not for everyone. There are still many “able-bodied” people who work but have seasonable jobs with unpredictable hours. In Rochester specifically, prevalent occupations such home health aides, and jobs in retail and food service are notorious for low pay and seldom offer steady hours. Other individuals struggle to find work due to unstable housing, unreliable transportation, limited education, mental health barriers, or to care for their loved ones. Data show that most people on SNAP who can work, do work.

For those who can’t find work, the administration is asking people to enroll in job training programs. While Foodlink supports these programs – and even launched its own culinary training program in 2018 – we know these programs to be few and far between, with limited funding to implement them effectively. One recent analysis of Wisconsin’s similar work requirement policy determined that less than a third of participants found work after completion of a job-training program, and the programs were twice as expensive as SNAP.

Furthermore, we take issue with new rule using a 24-month average to determine a region’s unemployment rate. This formula is in direct conflict with the purpose of SNAP, which is to react to the economy, and serve more people when the economy worsens. If a recession hit and unemployment spiked, a 24-month rate would not effectively represent the true economic hardships that communities faced.

This flawed rule will be a barrier – not a motivator – for people to find work. People who are malnourished and hungry aren’t better job candidates. Of course, we know that this rule was less about work, and more of an attack on the federal safety net and the poor. On the very same day President Trump signed the Farm Bill – bipartisan legislation that ultimately rejected this proposed rule change – this plan was unveiled. The timing was no coincidence, and it illustrates the administration’s true objective, which is to bypass the legislative process to slash SNAP for millions of Americans.

Foodlink remains committed to serving our region’s most vulnerable, food-insecure residents, and will work with state and local officials to mitigate the harmful effects of this policy.


Community rallies for Foodlink, others on ROC the Day

The community came through for Foodlink in a big way on Giving Tuesday this year.

Foodlink participated once again in the United Way of Greater Rochester’s annual ROC the Day campaign, which allows 500+ nonprofits to fundraise through a centralized website. On Dec. 3, members of the community can make donations to their favorite organizations, as social media is flooded with support for the nonprofit community.

According to the website, more than $766,000 was raised!

Foodlink has been blessed with overwhelming support in recent years — and 2019 was no different. Through the website, more than $18,000 in donations came through from 200+ donors. It represented our highest total since 2015.

Foodlink was also awarded a $500 bonus gift from the United Way and received a generous $10,000 matching gift from the Lindsay House — pushing our total to nearly $30,000!

THANK YOU to everyone who supported our mission on ROC the Day!

From left, Dr. Heather Lee, Dr. Vito C. Quatela, Dr. William J. Koenig and Dr. Ashley N. Amalfi — all physicians at the Lindsay House — toured Foodlink in October. Thank you for your Roc the Day challenge match!

Foodlink responds to yet another attempt to cut SNAP

The following statement has been submitted for public comment, in response to the proposed rule issued by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).

READ THE RULE: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Standardization of State Heating and Cooling Standard Utility Allowances

Foodlink, the regional food bank based in Rochester, NY, opposes the administration’s latest attempt to slash SNAP enrollment, which will threaten the health and wellbeing of New Yorkers who rely on our programs and services. 

We strongly oppose the proposed rule (RIN 0584-AE69) to standardize state heating and cooling Standard Utility Allowances (SUAs), which would result in a decrease in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for more than 7 million Americans nationwide. By eliminating a state’s ability to calculate its own average utility costs, more than 450,000 New Yorkers would lose an average of $63 in SNAP benefits as part of an 8% decrease in benefits statewide.[1] According to the USDA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis, 31% of New York households would see a reduction in SNAP.[2]

SUBMIT A COMMENT: Visit (Deadline: Dec. 2)

Low-income individuals rely on SNAP to feed themselves and their families because the work of food banks and other charitable organizations alone cannot adequately meet the needs of our community. Last year, Foodlink distributed 19 million pounds of food – its highest total ever. Still, that only accounted for 50% of the “Meal Gap” throughout the 10 counties we serve. For every one meal that a Feeding America member food bank provides, SNAP provides nine. It has been, and remains, the first line of defense against hunger.

When SNAP is cut, poverty rises. When poverty rises, the health of our communities suffers. Last year, SNAP lifted more than 3.1 million Americans out of poverty[3]. A comprehensive report released in Rochester this week detailed how poverty is the region’s top health concern. Its analysis found that the health inequities that stem from poverty result in more years of life lost than all forms of cancer combined[4]. Simply put, reducing or eliminating SNAP benefits for households that struggle to put food on the table will only exacerbate this critical issue.

This is the third major attempt by the administration to sidestep the legislative process – the 2018 Farm Bill – and take direct aim at cutting SNAP for poor Americans. With this proposal alone, Feeding America projects a loss of 568 million meals.[5]  We urge the administration to withdraw this dangerous proposal, and help the individuals and families we serve access the food they need to live healthier lives.






State officials partner with Wegmans, Foodlink for Thanksgiving meal distribution

Foodlink, Wegmans Food Markets and officials from the governor’s office joined forces Monday to make Thanksgiving a little easier on 80 Rochester families.

Foodlink member Mt. Olivet Baptist Church hosted a Thanksgiving meal distribution after serving breakfast to 80+ clients on Adams Street. Foodlink donated bags of apples, along with potatoes, onions and whole roaster chickens, while Wegmans donated turkeys and a box full of Thanksgiving sides.

Check out the photos on Foodlink’s Facebook page!

Canstruction Rochester announces 2019 award winners

Volunteers visited the Strong Museum of Play Sunday for one of the most bittersweet Foodlink-related events of the year … “De-Canstruction.”

The curtain officially fell on Canstruction Rochester after another successful year, but not before a few awards were handed out earlier in the week. The Wegmans Development Group was the top winner, garnering both the People’s Choice and Best Original Design award at Tuesday’s gala. Wegmans’ “Jafar” structure (pictured above) from the Disney movie “Aladdin” wowed museum patrons and judges alike.

Other award winners (pictured below) were:

  • Best Use of Labels: Young + Wright Architectural and Dwyer Architectural (Jim Kelly)
  • Best Meal: SEI Design Group (Bobo fat & Han Solo)
  • Structural Ingenuity: LaBella Associates (King Kong / Kodak)

Since 1992, Canstruction has raised nearly 82 million pounds of for hunger relief organizations through local design-build competitions across the globe. Here in Rochester, this year’s event will result in over 34,000 cans of food donated, bringing our grand total to over 400,000 pounds of food donated to Foodlink since the start of the local competition 12 years ago. Once again Buckingham Properties, led by Ken Glazer, spearheaded the event as the lead sponsor.