Much More Data Needed in Studying Food Pantries

Jim Prevor - Comments and Analysis

Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Produce Business.

There is little question that giving away anything for free tends to increase use or consumption of that item. If we give away healthy produce, but people still have to pay for unhealthy items, people’s diets will likely show some shift to healthier items.

Despite its claims, the report provides no evidence that 300 million Americans rely on food pantries. In the United States, the total population in 2017 was approximately 325.1 million people. So this would imply that more than 90% of the population got food from “places that give cash-strapped people free food” — this did not happen.

The link that is provided goes to a USDA report: Statistical Supplement to Household Food Security in the United States in 2017. The report points out that 5.0 percent of the population in 2017 used food panties and 0.5% of the population used emergency kitchens.

This piece makes four key points:

First, that food pantries are an important source of food. This is certainly true for people who utilize food pantries. But even here, the exact meaning of the study is unclear. For example, the paper states the following:
“People typically receive a bag or box containing enough food to serve their family three meals for about three or four days. Most people who use food pantries visit multiple pantries. About half make more than five trips a month to pick up food.”

Even assuming all this is true, it doesn’t establish that all these people would starve if this option did not exist. Think of it this way: imagine if we started giving away free clothes to poor people, and we could even prove that every year poor people picked up, for free, sufficient clothes to wear 365 days a year. Even if completely true, it would not establish that people would all be naked if the program didn’t exist.

Same thing with food pantries… if we tell everyone you can get free food at your local church or public housing unit, lots of hard-up people will choose to get free food there. It does not prove they would starve or even be malnourished if that food pantry did not exist.

It may well be that food pantries give out healthier food, but nothing in this study proves that people eat that healthier food.

Second, providing free food tends to boost the nutrients people consume. Indeed, the research claims that the diets provided by food pantries are comparatively rich in fruits and vegetables.

This is great news, of course, but it is not clear what it actually means. As the very old saying goes “Beggars can’t be choosers,” so it may well be that food pantries give out healthier food, but nothing in this study proves that people eat that healthier food. Surveying people on these programs is a tricky wicket. Do the surveyed want to be seen as ungrateful for what they were given? Do they want their benefactors to know they sold their healthy food to buy candy? Or drugs?

Third, the piece points out that the poor consumers who visit food pantries more frequently have a more nutritious diet than those who visit less frequently. But what this actually implies is unclear, and there is no study as to outcomes. Perhaps people who value good nutrition go to the free pantries frequently and those who do not value it, wouldn’t eat it if they did go. Maybe parents who don’t like the idea of being a welfare case, getting free food, etc. … go only under severe strain, and perhaps their children rely more on inexpensive foods such as pasta. Food is important, but it is not the only thing that is important. Perhaps kids with parents hesitant to accept charity actually do better in life than those with parents who don’t mind being charity cases. There is no data here on such questions.

Fourth, the researcher points out that eating a wide variety of foods helps people meet their basic nutritional needs and that after visiting a food pantry, people typically eat a wider variety for a couple of days. It is nice to see that consumers, after going to a food pantry, will tend to eat more fresh fruit, such as eating an apple rather than apple juice. This makes perfect sense — if you have both and enjoy both, why not eat the one that might spoil?

Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post food columnist, wrote this:

If we look at people with income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level (which translates to $32,630 for a family of four), 39 percent of them are obese …”

And how many people are underweight? In September 2018, the CDC put it this way:

Results … indicate that an estimated 1.5% of U.S. adults aged 20 and over are underweight.

So, among poor people, roughly 39% are obese, and roughly 1.5% are underweight. This seems to indicate that the emphasis might be on education and healthful eating more than just food distribution.

Look, there is little evidence that wealthy and middle-class people are abusing the system to get free food. So, mostly, giving away free food is a way of helping the poor, and that is a great and important thing, even if all it does is allow poor people to transfer money they would have spent on food to other needs, such as housing, clothing, medical care and education. Since donating produce also biases the system toward healthier options, it’s a very important endeavor.

The top food bank suppliers, such as Feeding America, help by facilitating the transfer of excess produce to local food banks, and great programs, such as Brighter Bites, add in an important educational component so people actually learn how to eat in a more healthy way.

It is a noble opportunity for produce companies, and the country as a whole, to engage with great organizations and work hard to make a better future for the people being fed.