The Harkin Institute put on its Wellness Symposium April 3, and Sarai Rice, executive director of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, presented some fascinating information about how DMARC has tried to fight poor eating habits.

“It is common knowledge now that the food environment that low-income people live in is one of the worst food environments in this country,” Rice said. “It’s just loaded with foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt. We looked at our food supply and realized that we were contributing to the problem rather than solving it.”

For example, the food pantries had been distributing canned fruit, with heavy syrup.

“So what we determined we needed to do in 2009 was to change our food supply. We changed our food supply to go toward foods that were low in sugar, fat and salt — whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables,” Rice said.

Then in 2017, DMARC upped its game to build on a decade of work. In a pilot, the organization assigned nutritional scores to its food, which basically meant clients would get far more food if they chose healthful items rather than food with lots of sugar, fat and salt. “We were basically applying behavioral economics,” Rice said.

In June 2017, the average score of customers was 2.21 on a five-point scale; then in December 2018, it was 1.89, meaning a shift toward more healthful foods.

The shopping bags are showing the difference. In June 2017, fruits and vegetables accounted for 33.5% of all orders. By December 2018, that figure had climbed to 53.4%, and among Asian women, it was even higher — 66%.

Americans fail at good diet

Angie Tagtow, former executive director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also spoke at the Harkin event. A federal index of healthful dining considers us on the right track the closer we get to a score of 100. Americans scored 59. “So think about getting a 59 on a test,” Tagtow said. “We’ve definitely failed in our average diet quality in this country.” Some of the main culprits probably won’t surprise you: We eat too much fat, sugars and salt.