Adopting plant-based meals several times per week can improve food
security, lower food costs for food pantry clients
Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN
Researchers from The Miriam Hospital and the Rhode Island Community Food
Bank report individuals who participated in a six-week cooking program
and followed simple, plant-based recipes decreased their total food
spending, purchased healthier food items and improved their food
The study, published in the March issue of the Journal
of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, is believed to be the
first to show a decrease in food insecurity – or a lack of access to
nutritional foods for at least some days or meals for members of a
household – as the result of an intervention.
Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN, the study’s lead author and a research dietitian at
The Miriam Hospital, designed the study with Andrew Schiff, PhD, the
chief executive officer of Rhode Island Community Food Bank and the
study’s co-author. The study is based on Flynn’s research of a
plant-based diet she developed that emphasizes cooking with olive oil
and follows a Mediterranean diet pattern.
“I had a number of people – mainly women from my breast cancer weight
loss study – say how inexpensive a Mediterranean-style diet was, so I
approached the food bank about designing a study using food pantry items
for the recipes,” says Flynn.
She points out that meat, poultry and seafood are the most expensive
items in a food budget, especially the recommended lower-fat versions.
Typical households of lower socioeconomic status spend grocery money
first on these items, allocating far less to vegetables and fruits.
However, by changing the focus to the elimination of foods not needed to
improve health – such as meat, snacks, desserts and carbonated beverages
– a healthy diet can be quite economical, Flynn says.
total of 83 clients were recruited from emergency food pantries and
low-income housing sites for the 34 week study. Sixty-three completed
the diet protocol and the six-month follow-up requirement. As part of
the study, participants attended six weeks of cooking classes, where
instructors prepared quick and easy plant-based recipes that
incorporated ingredients like olive oil, whole grain pasta, brown rice
and fruits and vegetables. The participants were then followed for six
months after the cooking program ended.
Participants were not required to assist in the preparation, but staff
discussed the benefits of some of these ingredients and encouraged
participants to look for these items in their own food pantry. However,
no additional nutrition or food information was provided.
All cooking class participants were provided with a bag of groceries
that contained most of the ingredients to make three of the provided
recipes for their family members during the six weeks of the cooking
classes. Grocery receipts were collected throughout the study and
researchers observed significant decreases in purchases of meat,
carbonated beverages, desserts and snacks, even though staff never
instructed participants not to purchase these items. At the same time,
there was an increase in the total number of different vegetables and
fruits consumed per month.
“Not only did study participants cut their food spending by more than
half, saving nearly $40 per week, we also found that the reliance on a
food pantry decreased as well, from 68 percent at the start of the study
to 54 percent, demonstrating a clear decline in food insecurity,” Flynn
Following a plant-based diet also yielded some unexpected health
benefits, Flynn adds. Approximately half of all participants lost
weight, which was not a study objective, and there was an overall
decrease in body mass index, or BMI.
“Our results also suggest that including a few plant-based meals per
week is an attainable goal that will not only improve their health and
diet, but also lower their food costs,” Flynn says.
Flynn is also an associate professor of medicine at The Warren Alpert
Medical School of Brown University.