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Ohio State University Extension


MyPlate-Guided Rainbow of Colors Choice System for Food Pantry Staff and Volunteers

Dan Remley, Family and Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension

This guide is intended for Extension educators, food pantry staff and volunteers who are interested in the “MyPlate-Guided” Rainbow of Colors Choice Food Pantry System.

What is the “Rainbow System?”

Ohio State University Extension, under the direction of the Butler County Ohio FEED Alliance, created the Rainbow of Colors System. The “Rainbow” choice system is organized according to MyPlate, which is a visual guide to support healthy eating patterns. MyPlate was introduced in 2011 and is based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are published jointly every five years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Foods are shelved and labeled according to “MyPlate” color-coded food groups and clients are allowed a predetermined number of choices per food group. 

Why might MyPlate-Guided choice be important?

Obesity and associated chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, are growing epidemics in Ohio and the United States. These illnesses are costly to individuals and society. Although there are many causes, lifestyle factors such as poor diet and physical inactivity, are key contributors. Nutrition education can help individuals live healthy and productive lives.

In addition, food insecurity is associated with diabetes and other diet-related chronic diseases (Seligman, Bindman, Vittinghoff, Kanaya, & Kushel, 2007). People who are food insecure have more emotional and financial challenges related to managing chronic diseases (Seligman & Schillinger, 2010), compared with people who are food secure (Seligman et al., 2007; Seligman & Schillinger, 2010; Seligman, Jacobs, López, Tschann, & Fernandez, 2012). Coping strategies are often used to avoid hunger, which might lead to poor dietary quality. Coping strategies may include consuming low cost and highly filling foods (fewer fruits and vegetables, more processed high fat, sodium, carb foods), eating a small variety of foods, using food waste avoidance, and binging when food is abundant (Seligman & Schillinger, 2010). 

The Rainbow system ensures that clients choose from a variety of different food groups so that they can provide healthy, balanced meals and snacks for themselves and their families. Since each food group area in the pantry is color coded, clients can learn how their choices fit into MyPlate, and understand what healthy meals or snacks might look like. The Rainbow system also requires pantry directors and staff to consider the food groups during food procurement in order to offer a variety of choices in each group. The Rainbow system can be easily integrated with nutrition education provided by Ohio State University Extension’s SNAP-Ed program or trained volunteer shopping assistants. Educators or shopping assistants can help clients make healthy choices within each food group and promote MyPlate nutrition messages. 

How many choices should be allowed per food group?

The director of the food pantry determines how many choices are allowed per food group. Decisions are usually based on the pantry’s current inventory. Family size should also be taken into consideration when determining how many choices per food group.

How should the pantry be arranged?

The choice pantry should be arranged according to the MyPlate food groups and food items should be placed accordingly. The shelves, pallets or tables should be color coded and labeled according to the food groups using signs or stickers. If possible, the food groups should be located in separate locations. For example, all of the vegetables should be in one part of the pantry and all the foods in the protein group should be in another. Refrigerators or freezer shelves should also be color coded and labeled. Food pantry clients should understand what food group they are choosing from.

How do clients choose?

Shopping assistants can guide the clients and help them make choices within each food group (identified by attached shelf poster). Family size determines how many choices per color-coded food group each client receives. Clients choose foods independently but shopping assistants have the opportunity to offer nutritional advice if they are comfortable.

Can choice pantries place restrictions on certain items? 

In order to ensure that all clients have access to a variety of foods, each choice pantry should decide what restrictions to place on items. For example, some choice pantries allow no more than two of any particular food item. Others put signs up indicating that only a certain number of a food item can be taken. For example, if a pantry is running low on canned corn, a sign can indicate that clients can only take one can of corn. Volunteers should be updated on restrictions. Some pantries, though, do not use any restrictions within the food groups, and try to procure enough of desirable items to meet the demands of clients.

How do we promote healthy or unpopular foods?

Certain items, such as fresh produce, have a short shelf life and must be taken quickly. Therefore, many pantries offer these items as a “free choice.” Also, pantries may wish to promote healthy foods such as whole grains or promote items that are difficult to move by allowing free choice or allowing a “two choices for one” option. Other “healthy nudge” strategies might include locating healthier choices at eye-level or at end of aisle displays, offering samples of recipes, or placing a sign or posting telling a “local story” about a particular food.

How do volunteers know where to place food items?

The website can help pantries categorize food items into the food groups. The fruit group is color coded red and examples include canned, fresh, frozen or dried peaches, apples, pears and other varieties. Vegetables are color-coded green and include canned, fresh, frozen or dried peas, corn, tomatoes, broccoli and other varieties. Grains are color coded orange and include cereals, pastas and breads. Dairy items are color coded blue and include dry, UHT box milk, cheese and yogurt. Proteins are purple and include beans, peanut butter, beef, poultry, eggs, nuts, fish and tofu.

In addition to the main food groups, the Rainbow system has the “Combination” and “Miscellaneous” categories that allow volunteers to place foods that are less healthy and/or difficult to categorize into one of the main food groups. The two additional groups ensure that the five main MyPlate food groups consist of healthier selections. The combination group is color coded brown and consists of items that are generally highly processed and contain more than one food group. Examples include soups, stews, macaroni and cheese, and meal-in-boxes. 

The Miscellaneous food group is color coded yellow. These foods usually belong to one of the main food groups but are less healthy and highly processed (yes, potato chips are considered vegetables!). Examples of Miscellaneous foods include cookies, cakes (donuts), chips, crackers, candies, soda, snack bars, gelatin, pudding, cooking ingredients and oils. Some pantries might choose to place desserts and snacks in actual food groups if the inventories are low. For example, pudding (a dessert) can be placed in Dairy instead of Miscellaneous if there are not any other healthier dairy selections to choose from. Finally, canned, frozen or dry beans could be placed in either the “Vegetable” or “Protein” group since they have the nutritional properties of both groups.

Seligman, H. K., Bindman, A. B., Vittinghoff, E., Kanaya, A. M., & Kushel, M. B. (2007). Food insecurity is associated with diabetes mellitus: Results from the National Health Examination and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999–2002. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(7), 1018–1023.
Seligman, H. K., & Schillinger, D. (2010). Hunger and socioeconomic disparities in chronic disease. The New England Journal of Medicine, 363(1), 6–9.
Seligman, H. K., Jacobs, E. A., López, A., Tschann, J., & Fernandez, A. (2012). Food insecurity and glycemic control among low-income patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care, 35(2), 233–8.
Remley, D. T., Kaiser, M., and Osso, T. (2013). “A Case Study of Promoting Nutrition and Long-term Food Security through Choice Pantry Development.” Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. Vol. 8(3), 324–336. 
Remley, D. T., Zubieta, A. C., Lambea, M.C., Melgar-Quinonez, H., Taylor, C. (2010). “Spanish and English-Speaking Client Perceptions of Choice Food Pantries.” Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition. Vol. 1 (5), 120–128. 
Remley, D. T., Gallagher, T., McDowell, J., Kershaw, M., Lambea, M. C., and Melgar-Quinonez, H. (2006). “Extension’s Role in Developing Choice Food Pantries.” Journal of Extension. Vol. 6 (44).
U.S. Department of Agriculture (January 2016). Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, eighth edition. United States Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from:
Originally posted Oct 6, 2016.