Published in the Hartford Courant / May 30, 2017
Out of work and looking to local pantries for food, Barbara Sullivan wondered whether she could maintain a healthy diet for her family.
At Gifts of Love in Avon, it became possible thanks to a new program that uses color-coded labels to show which foods are high and low in sugar, salt and saturated fats.
“This is excellent, it lets you know what is there for your family,” said Sullivan, of Southington. “You know that if it says green, you can get it for your family, but if it’s red you might stay away from it.”
Experiences like Sullivan’s are what staff at Gifts of Love hoped for earlier this year when they implemented the new labeling system, called Stoplight Nutrition. Now, state and national agencies that help feed needy people are looking at the food-ranking system and it could be used soon in food pantries across Connecticut.
That farm-grown fruits and vegetables are healthy fare is well-known. Less easy to figure out is if a box of cereal lives up to its billing as good for you rather than loaded with too much sugar or salt. The new system quickly alerts clients to the nutritional value of canned or packaged food by using the green, yellow and red colors of a traffic signal.
Proponents of the Stoplight system say it gives pantry clients a better chance at picking healthier food by simplifying people’s choices down to three categories using the colors. Katie Martin, a public health professor at the University of Saint Joseph who helped devise the system, said this helps clients who may have difficulty deciphering the often bewildering nutrition descriptions on food labels.
“This is simple, visual and easy,” said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. She also worked on the Stoplight system.
Schwartz said many food banks that supply pantries at the local level already categorize their supplies based on their nutritional level. But those systems are not easy for food pantries to implement, she said.
“And for pantry clients, it really needs to be transparent and simple. You can’t use a complicated food-ranking system,” Schwartz said.
Her comments were echoed by Christine Rivera of Feeding America, an umbrella organization for food banks across the country. Rivera, Feeding America’s community health and nutrition manager, said the organization is looking at how the Stoplight system works in Connecticut and may roll it out to food banks and pantries in other parts of the country later this year.
“We are watching but we are also optimistic that this is the direction we will go in,” Rivera said.
Rivera and others said the Stoplight system is part of an effort to not only feed needy people but also to feed them well. That is something Jamie Voegler, a single mother from Canton with a 10-year old daughter, said she appreciates. She is a client of Farm to Family’s Gifts of Love program, one of the agencies trying out the Stoplight system. Voegler said she usually gets milk, juice and meat from Gifts of Love’s pantry but jumps at the chance to get fresh produce when it is there.
“This takes the edge off of the grocery bill,” Voegler said about using the pantry.
Martin said the idea of using colors to identify good and bad categories for food came from a nutrition curriculum that was aimed at children in fourth grade.
What was needed was something adults are familiar with and that led her to the idea of a traffic signal. Green means the food is good for you, like fresh produce. Yellow, the traditional signal for caution when entering an intersection, is for things like canned fruit and pasta that have some nutritional value but also drawbacks. Red, which on the road means stop, is assigned to junk food that may taste great but is loaded with sugar or salt and should be eaten only occasionally as a snack.
At Gifts of Love’s pantry, the color coding is reinforced by simple, bluntly worded phrases to drive home the message for each food. Phrases for green say thinks like “supports health,” or “choose often.” On another shelf, food classified with a red label include such messages as message is “limited health benefits,” or “choose rarely.” Food with the green label is at eye level so it is the first thing someone sees while red food is on lower shelves and less visible.
About 350 people use Gifts of Love’s services, including the food pantry. Gifts of Love Executive Director Susan Pribyson said the food ranking system is part of its education program on living skills with clients.
“The key is to not push this system in the beginning,” Pribyson said. “When they sign up here, they often are in crisis and the focus is on getting them what they want and feeding their families. But as time goes on, it is helping them make healthy choices.”
The two food banks that serve pantries in Connecticut are the Bloomfield-based Foodshare and the Connecticut Food Bank in Wallingford. Officials of both observed how the Stoplight system works at Gifts of Love during a tour in March. They said they like what they saw and may roll it out to the pantries they work with this summer.
Diana Goode, vice president of development at Foodshare and director of Gifts of Love until late last year, said she has wanted something like the Stoplight system for a long time. Frustration with existing food-ranking systems, which she said were too complicated for a pantry and its clients, prompted Goode to ask Martin for ideas.
Goode said she likes the system being tried out and that Foodshare is looking at getting the other pantries it serves to adopt it, as well.
Although easy for clients to use, Goode said there would be some logistical issues for pantries. Most of what local pantries offer comes from food banks like Foodshare, which could handle the sorting and labeling needed for the the Stoplight system. But contributions from the community are an important component of a pantry’s stock and for that volunteers at a pantry would have to make sure the food goes in the proper category.
“This would be much more time consuming when it comes to sorting contributions from food drives, because there you are getting bags of random food,” Goode said.