Skip to main content

SuperShelf makes super progress

By Laura Bohen, Extension educator in health and nutrition

Last spring the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health received a $3.2 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to evaluate the effectiveness of the SuperShelf program. U of M Extension health and nutrition staff are assisting with the evaluation.

One male and one female choosing food at a food shelf.

So how are things going, you may ask? In a word: super! I’m happy to say that the SuperShelf study is progressing at a steady clip.

Recent events include the selection of eight food shelves to participate in round 1 of the NIH study last fall. And seven SNAP-Ed educators are undergoing training this month to act as SuperShelf consultants. I’m so excited about what’s happening with SuperShelf that I tell almost everyone I know about it. Now I’m telling you.

On a mission

SuperShelf’s mission is to transform food shelves so they provide healthy foods in an appealing, welcoming environment. It began as a 2012 partnership between HealthPartners’ Lakeview Hospital and Valley Outreach, a non-profit serving low-income households in the Stillwater area. This pilot partnership, called Better Shelf for Better Health, transformed Valley Outreach’s food shelf to provide healthier food and a dignified experience for clients.

Over the next few years, additional food shelves in Minnesota and Wisconsin signed on for transformations through the Better Shelf for Better Health program. Promising outcomes drew the attention of other people and organizations interested in healthy food access, including Extension health and nutrition staff.

As a result, Extension funded a pilot in 2016 for SNAP-Ed educators to partner with Valley Outreach and HealthPartners, as well as The Food Group (formerly Emergency Food Shelf Network), to transform four food shelves in the Twin Cities area — two urban and two suburban. The program was re-named SuperShelf, and the transformations were done per the SuperShelf model, which calls for:

Creating a food shelf environment that is client-centered — an environment that promotes and respects individual choice.
  • Increasing access to a variety of healthy, culturally appropriate food.
  • Applying behavioral economic principles to promote healthy food choices.
  • Creating an appealing environment by transforming the physical space (occupied by a food shelf).
  • Making the healthiest choice the easiest choice for all food shelf patrons.
  • Meeting specific SuperShelf standards, methods and values.

Values guide work

Beyond physical transformations, SuperShelf advocates envision a food system in which all people thrive. The following values guide their work:
  • Good food. We believe reliable access to healthy, appealing and culturally appropriate food will promote overall health in our communities.
  • Respect for all. We believe client-centered, welcoming, and positive approaches create dignified experiences that further equity in our communities.
  • Collaborative partnerships. We believe mutual trust and fully engaged partners build strong, connected communities working toward sustainable systems change.
  • Evidence-based practices. We believe excellence comes from thoughtful, rigorous evaluations and replicable solutions.
  • Dynamic leadership. We believe innovation and creativity are vital for the continual improvement and transformation of our food system

NIH evaluation launched

Based on results from the Extension pilot and from a separate study by the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at two pilot sites, the NIH issued its $3.2 million grant in May 2017 to study SuperShelf effectiveness at more food shelves with more rigorous evaluation measures.

The NIH evaluation will continue over five years and will measure outcomes for both clients and the food shelves themselves. Client outcomes to be measured include changes in dietary practices, markers of cardiovascular health, changes in selections (clients make) at the food shelf, and satisfaction with culturally specific foods and services. Food shelf outcomes to be measured include changes in the nutritional quality of foods offered to clients, successes and challenges in implementing SuperShelf, and the availability of culturally specific foods.

Eight sites elected for round 1

More than 50 of Minnesota’s 200-plus food shelves applied to participate in the NIH study. From those, eight food shelves were selected in fall 2017 to participate in round 1 of the study. Four of these food shelves have been designated “intervention” sites — they will receive a SuperShelf transformation this spring and summer.

The other four sites have been designated “control” (also called “delayed intervention”) sites. They will not receive transformations this year, but will simply collect data on regular operations so they can be compared to the SuperShelf intervention sites. They will receive their own transformations in 2019. The food shelves selected for round 1 are:
  • The Aliveness Project, Hennepin County, intervention site.
  • Community Emergency Services, Hennepin County, delayed intervention site.
  • Meeker County Food Shelf, Meeker County, intervention.
  • McLeod Emergency Food Shelf, McLeod County, delayed intervention.
  • ACBC Emergency Food Shelf, Anoka County, intervention.
  • Merrick Community Services, Ramsey County, delayed intervention.
  • Community Action Northfield, Rice County, intervention.
  • CHUM Food Shelf, St. Louis County, delayed intervention. 

Serving as SuperShelf consultants

One critical lesson, learned from early food shelf transformations conducted through the Better Shelf for Better Health program, was the importance of consultants. Food shelf staff and volunteers did not have the time or capacity to oversee transformations on their own. They needed on-the-ground support from a trained consultant to help them adapt to changes and tailor things for their space and clientele.

As a result, several SNAP-Ed educators were trained as SuperShelf consultants for the 2016 pilot, and seven more are being trained this month. Some consultants will be assigned to the round 1 NIH evaluation sites, while others will use what they have learned to work with the round 1 control food shelves in their region on readiness and lining up resources for their transformation in 2019. Consultants also will assist food shelves in applying to participate in round 2 of the study.

For more information

There’s definitely more I could tell you now. But I’ll contain myself. If you want more information on SuperShelf, email me at Also check out the Healthy Food Transformations page on the Family website.
Print Friendly and PDF