Biomedical researchers help food pantries establish healthy policies

Deborah Lown,left, and Katherine Hekstra are collecting data to help Grand Rapids food pantries establish healthy food policies.
Deborah Lown,left, and Katherine Hekstra are collecting data to help Grand Rapids food pantries establish healthy food policies.

Data collected by Grand Valley researchers has helped two Grand Rapids food pantries establish policies and ensure fresh produce and healthy foods are available to their clients.

Deborah Lown, associate professor of biomedical sciences, and graduate student Katherine Hekstra created a survey and collected data from people who visit food pantries at South End Community Outreach Ministries (SECOM) and Streams of Hope neighbors.

SECOM, in southwest Grand Rapids, provides more than 20,000 services to more than 9,000 people annually. Streams of Hope, in southeast Grand Rapids, services 6,000 people annually through its food center.

Eleanor Moreno, SECOM director of client services, said affordable options for healthy foods within walking distance of the neighborhood are limited.

"These are families committed to healthy eating but who are having a hard time finding affordable healthy foods," Moreno said. "Through this initiative, we want to make sure that these families can access the nutritious foods they need to improve health and have the energy to work and learn.”

Hekstra, who will graduate in December with a master's of health science in biomedical sciences degree, said the data revealed more than 40 percent of SECOM clients were diagnosed with high blood pressure and 46 percent as overweight. She added that 70 percent of clients stated they would like more fresh fruit and vegetables in the pantries.

Hekstra said the data will help staff members at the food pantries evaluate the change in food distribution and better understand their clients. Data will be collected again at the three- and six-month stages.

"We also created a guide for the volunteers at the pantries who shop with the clients," Hekstra said. "It resembles My Plate, a visual image of what a balanced diet is."

Staff at both food pantries received help from Access of West Michigan to establish and transition to healthy food policies. Emma Garcia, hunger response director at Access of West Michigan, said the research by Lown and Hekstra will help improve the health of neighborhoods through nutritional options.

"We know from national data that low-income populations have much higher incidence rates of diseases related to food," Garcia said. "Having our own data in food pantries that serve Kent County will help us make positive and deeply impactful nutritional changes in how we serve our community."