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Focus groups share insights on rural food shelves

A well-lit, colorful food shelf display contains oranges, dairy and other healthy foods

In 2014, Extension health and nutrition staff, including SNAP-Ed* educators, began working with food shelf directors and volunteers to improve the experience of clients, and gently “nudge” clients toward healthier eating.

SNAP-Ed educators work in every county with those who receive food assistance.

The experience they have in making changes for better health — and doing so in ways that treat clients with dignity — makes them valued partners on food security. This experience led to an Extension program called Nudging to Health: Building Better Food Shelves, and Extension participation in an effort called SuperShelf.

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Extension and partners conducted research focus groups with 37 directors, staff and clients for five rural food shelves to learn what makes the efforts successful and what barriers still exist.

Here is a sampling of what they said:

“We need volunteers…that’s a lifeblood of what makes our food shelf work.” — director

“It looks more like a store than a food shelf. That makes a difference.” — staff

“I went to the class to find out what nudging was. [It] actually kind of just encourages them to take healthier foods than they’re used to.” — volunteer

“Using the food shelf myself, now I have gas money…we are eating better than we did before because we have the healthier choice.” — client

“I think it’s even just a mental value for our clients to be treated so warmly that you feel comfortable in the circumstance you’re in instead of feeling bad about yourself.” — director

New information received after these focus groups shows that COVID-19 exacerbated challenges, created shortages of volunteers and staff, and increased the need for food assistance. Learn more at Building Better Food Shelves or access the full report

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