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New options at Dallas food pantry boost food security

Meal kits, no-prep meals can remove barriers to healthy eating for people at higher risk of diet-related illnesses, UTSW pilot study finds

Jessica Turcios, B.S., Senior Research Assistant at UT Southwestern, checks on the food deliveries that will be used to create the meal kits used in the study.
Jessica Turcios, B.S., Senior Research Assistant at UT Southwestern, checks on the food deliveries that will be used to create the meal kits.

DALLAS – Feb. 01, 2024 – Nutritious meal kits and no-prep meals improved food security and perceived dietary quality among clients of a Dallas food pantry, according to a pilot study led by UT Southwestern Medical Center. Published in BMC Public Health, the research suggested these dietary interventions could also help with prevention or management of diet-related chronic diseases.

Kelseanna Hollis-Hansen, Ph.D.
Kelseanna Hollis-Hansen, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Peter O'Donnell Jr. School of Public Health and a member of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern.

“When people are food secure and able to eat a more balanced diet with greater variety and nutritious options, they are less likely to miss school, are able to be more engaged at work, and can improve their overall health and well-being,” said first author Kelseanna Hollis-Hansen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health and a member of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern. “Understanding what nutrition interventions can be implemented through trusted community partners and which options are most desirable to the community members themselves can encourage engagement and lead to greater improvements in food security and diet quality.”

Food pantry clients tend to experience higher rates of food insecurity and diet-related illness, including heart disease, stroke, hypertension, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes. Some face additional barriers, such as disabilities or prohibitively high costs of nutritious foods. Of the tens of thousands of annual clients served through Dallas’ Crossroads Community Services, 91% consistently lack access to nutritious food, and few consume the minimum recommended amounts of fruits or vegetables.

UTSW researchers partnered with Crossroads to learn more about clients’ preferences for nutritious no-prep meals and meal kits and whether those interventions could improve food security and diet quality. Previous research has shown that meal kits, which supply ingredients and a recipe for clients to follow, lead to more selections of produce and whole grains from the food pantry than other options. Nutritious no-prep meals, which need only to be reheated, are another nutrition intervention strategy that could remove challenges that some people might face with food preparation.   

The ingredients for each meal kit are packed in a bag
The ingredients for each meal kit are packed in a bag that has the recipe attached for food pantry clients to use.

“Being able to deliver these interventions through a trusted community partner that people already visit reduces the number of places they have to go to fill their fridge and pantry, and it invests back into the community,” Dr. Hollis-Hansen said.

Sixty-six Crossroads clients were randomly assigned either meal kits or no-prep meals – breakfasts and dinners for a family of three – for two weeks. Favorite breakfast entrees included blueberry waffles, a spinach and mozzarella flatbread, and a turkey sausage burrito. Dinner options included chicken teriyaki with brown rice and carrots; chimichurri beef with carrots, cauliflower, and couscous; and Dijon pulled pork with green peas, carrots, and quinoa.

"We want to understand what nutrition interventions and types of food are most desirable to these community members so that we can provide more of what people actually want to eat at Crossroads,” Dr. Hollis-Hansen noted. 

On average, participants had an annual household income of $19,058, and 47% did not have medical insurance.

From surveys, UTSW researchers found that both meal options improved participants’ food security and perceived diet quality. Participants, who completed questionnaires at the outset of the study and after two weeks, liked both options but favored the meal kits more over time. Further research on improving healthy no-prep meals could benefit different populations, such as people who have recently had surgery or are receiving medical treatments.

Other UTSW researchers who contributed to this study are lead author Sandi Pruitt, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the O’Donnell School of Public Health and Associate Director of Community Outreach, Engagement, and Equity in the Simmons Cancer Center; Michael E. Bowen, M.D., Associate Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, and the O’Donnell School of Public Health and a member of the Simmons Cancer Center; and Jaclyn Albin, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine and Director of Culinary Medicine at UTSW. Other contributors from the O’Donnell School of Public Health are Tammy Leonard, Ph.D., Professor; MinJae Lee, Ph.D., Associate Professor; Carolyn Haskins, M.S., Project Coordinator; and Jessica Turcios, B.S., Senior Research Assistant. 

Drs. Lee, Leonard, and Pruitt are also members of the Simmons Cancer Center. Dr. Bowen is a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care.

This work is supported by the UT Southwestern Medical Center Program for the Evaluation and Development of Model Community Health Initiatives Community-Based Research Award and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under a supplement of award UL1TR003163.

Drs. Pruitt and Leonard have personal consulting relationships with Crossroads Community Services.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center  

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty members have received six Nobel Prizes and include 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 21 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 3,100 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 120,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 5 million outpatient visits a year.