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«IRP Discussion Paper No. 1408-13 The Cost of Free Assistance: Studying Nonuse of Food Assistance in San Francisco Christopher Wimer Columbia ...»

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IRP Discussion Paper

No. 1408-13

The Cost of Free Assistance: Studying Nonuse of Food Assistance in San Francisco

Christopher Wimer

Columbia University

E-mail: cw2727@columbia.edu

Rachel Wright

Stanford University

Kelley Fong


February 2013

We would like to thank David B. Grusky for overall guidance planning the project, and Tristan Ivory for

assistance developing the project proposal and interview instruments. We would also like to thank Sean

Brooks, Ethan Patchell, Barbara Lin, and Desiree Scott from the San Francisco Food Bank for assistance and support in identifying the sample and refining the interview instruments. Community activists, who we do not name here to protect anonymity, were also invaluable in helping us identify respondents and gain rapport in their communities. Finally, we would like to thank the many respondents who worked alongside us to answer our research questions by sharing their insights and experiences about sometimes difficult topics. This work was supported by a grant from the Institute for Research on Poverty RIDGE Center for National Food and Nutrition Assistance Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of either institution. The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality is supported by Grant Number AE00101 from the U.S.

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (awarded by Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Administration). The contents of this report are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the U.S.

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

IRP Publications (discussion papers, special reports, Fast Focus, and the newsletter Focus) are available on the Internet. The IRP Web site can be accessed at the following address: http://www.irp.wisc.edu.

Abstract Nongovernmental free food assistance is available to many low-income Americans through food pantries, yet many do not avail themselves of this assistance. As the monetary value of such assistance can be over $2,000 per year, nonuse poses a puzzle from an economic standpoint. This study uses original data collected through in-depth interviews with 63 low-income San Franciscans who did not use free food assistance from food pantries. The data paint a nuanced picture of the reasons low-income people do not obtain assistance from local food pantries. The study explores respondents’ need for, knowledge of, access to, and acceptance of assistance. We find that overall, sample members concluded that the benefit of free food assistance did not justify the perceived effort and psychological costs involved. These costs included moral objections to taking food from others, perceptions of low-quality food, hassles and “drama,” racial tensions, and the emotional toll of accepting assistance.

The Cost of Free Assistance: Studying Nonuse of Food Assistance in San Francisco


Hunger remains a significant problem in the United States. More than one in seven households in the country are “food insecure,” meaning that they have difficulty providing food for themselves at some time during the year due to a lack of resources (Coleman-Jensen, Nord, Andrews, and Carlson 2011. In addition to government food assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), nonprofit food assistance forms a critical part of the social safety net by distributing food directly to people experiencing, or at risk of, food insecurity. This nonprofit assistance includes local food pantries, typically supplied by central warehouses known as food banks, which distribute groceries at churches, community centers, and other neighborhood sites. Although increasing numbers of people are turning to food pantries for assistance (U.S. Conference of Mayors 2011; Mabli, Cohen, Potter, and Zhao 2010), many low-income people do not utilize these services. This poses something of a puzzle from a purely utilitarian standpoint, as the value of this free food assistance can be upwards of $2,000 a year, according to estimates provided by the San Francisco Food Bank. The determinants of food pantry service utilization remain poorly understood, with existing research focusing more heavily on use of government food programs (e.g., Blank and Ruggles 1996; McKernan, Ratcliffe, and Finegold 2008; Issar 2010). This paper utilizes qualitative interview data from a sample of low-income nonusers of food pantries in San Francisco, California, to better understand why some low-income households do not utilize free food assistance in their communities. Research in this area will help food pantries improve their services to address unmet food need, and contribute to an understanding of low-income people’s decision-making processes around nonprofit assistance.


Existing literature identifies several factors that contribute to nonutilization of free food assistance. To organize the concepts, and our results, we suggest that nonuse could result from a variety of decisions along a progression of need, knowledge, access, and acceptance. That is, potential users might fail to utilize free assistance in their community if they do not need the assistance. Provided that respondents do actually need assistance, they may refrain from using that assistance because they do not know that that assistance exists in their community. Provided they both need and know of the availability of assistance, they may still refrain from utilizing that assistance because they do not believe the assistance is accessible (e.g., if they perceived assistance to be available only at very inconvenient times or locations). Lastly, low-income individuals may need assistance, know of assistance’s availability, believe they can access that assistance, and yet still not accept that assistance for any of a number of reasons, including but not limited to social stigma and internalized attitudes about self-reliance.

Need Research confirms that food-insecure families and families with lower incomes tend to utilize pantry services more than food-secure families (Swanson, Olson, Miller, and Lawrence 2008; Bhattarai, Duffy, and Raymond 2005; Daponte, Lewis, Sanders, and Taylor 1998). Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, low-income people frequently report that they do not use food pantry services because they do not need the food (Daponte et al. 1998; Martin, Cook, Rogers, and Joseph 2003). Yet surveys about need often do not adequately capture the variety of hardship-driven behaviors and strategies some individuals use to avoid reaching food insecurity. When nonusers report that they “don’t need” services, this may simply be the result of a savvy use of substitutes – from the government, social networks, or personal ingenuity (Mosley and Tiehen, 2004).

For example, Edin and Lein (1997) interviewed hundreds of single mothers on welfare or in lowwage work, who found relying on cash help from their personal networks preferable to agency-based help such as that provided by food pantries. Consistent with these results, low-income individuals in North Carolina reported in focus groups that when they needed food, they relied on family members as a first line of assistance, followed by friends and then neighbors; only when these networks were unable to meet their needs and they had no other options did they resort to food pantries and soup kitchens (Ahluwalia, Dodds, and Baligh 1998). Thus, as people in need of food assistance may rely on their social networks rather than food pantries, need must be understood as a subjective concept driven only partly by actual material deprivation.

For example, imagine two parents with the same low income and roughly the same expenses to cover food, housing, utilities, etc. But parent A routinely borrows $100 from her mother to provide food for her children, even though this puts a strain on their relationship and she is not always able to pay the money back. Parent B refuses to accept such assistance (or it is not available to her), and so reports that she both uses free food assistance and “needs” it. We could say that parent A either does not need the assistance because she has access to another form of support or that parent A could objectively use the assistance just as much as parent B, but consciously chooses not to accept it for any of a number of other reasons. After all, that $100 could be directed toward investing in the future, living in a different neighborhood, or other types of consumption if parent A had availed herself of the free food assistance available. Nonuse among low-income individuals therefore presents something of a puzzle from a strict utility maximization viewpoint. Why would some families struggling to make ends meet choose not to avail themselves of free assistance? This paper seeks to illuminate not only how individuals avoid being in need, but how they think about need and who is in need of food pantry services.

Knowledge Individuals who do not use food pantries may simply be unaware of these services and how and where to access them. Several studies argue that lack of information is the main cause of under-utilization of different programs (Coe 1983; GAO 1988; Blaylock and Smallwood 1984; Aizer 2003). Duffy et al.

(2002) surveyed nonusers and found that lack of knowledge about food pantries in their community was the main barrier to use. Oppositely, other researchers conclude that lack of awareness or information is not a primary explanation for food pantry nonuse (Daponte et al. 1998; Martin et al. 2003). Some lowincome persons may know of assistance in the abstract, but not know of specific programs and how they work in their own community. This study will therefore consider the contours of respondents’ knowledge about food assistance, both in the


and in their own communities. Additionally, knowledge may be a conditional concept; some individuals may report not knowing about a pantry on a survey instrument because they have not sought out that information. Probing the reasons for not seeking such information may uncover the underlying drivers of nonuse.

Information about assistance programs is closely related to social networks, which can facilitate food pantry use by spreading awareness and providing information (Duffy et al. 2002; Ahluwalia et al.

1998). We might imagine that people find out about programs through contacts that have already used them. Some studies have found that a large social network has a positive effect on the use of welfare (Bertrand, Luttmer, and Mullainathan 2000) and publicly funded maternal care (Aizer and Currie 2002).

Those with networks that are not “plugged in” to the help afforded by food pantries may have less information about them, and thus may be less likely to utilize food pantry services. We investigate this possibility in our interviews.

Access Another factor potentially influencing the decision to use food pantry services is one’s ability to access the pantry. Using data from Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, Allard (2009) argues that social service assistance is not typically located in high poverty areas, which presents access challenges for those most in need. In a survey of low-income households in Hartford, food-insecure households that knew of food pantry services but did not use them primarily attributed their nonuse to difficulty getting to the pantry; many others reported that they did not use food pantries because it would be difficult to carry the food home – a practical barrier related to proximity (Martin et al. 2003). Similarly, in a survey of households that had not used food pantries continuously, 22 percent said they stopped because they no longer had transportation (Daponte et al. 1998).

Our study situates two of our three data collection sites in communities with direct access to a food pantry (either at respondents’ housing projects or their children’s school) to understand perceptions of access when services are offered on site, theoretically obviating access barriers. The other third of our sample comes from the wider San Francisco community, allowing us to contrast nonusers who appear to have “direct access” to assistance to users who may not be situated near convenient and accessible assistance.

Acceptance Finally, attitudes and perceptions around food pantries and the food they provide can influence utilization. Previous research found that individuals targeted by social services and food assistance agencies believed the benefit of these services often did not justify the time, effort, and risk involved in accessing the services (Kissane 2010; Dodds, Ahluwalia, and Baligh 1996). In a study of food stamp use, Daponte, Osborne, and Sanders (1999) found that eligible individuals do not enroll if the benefit is small;

those who do not apply for food stamps frequently state, “it isn’t worth it” or “[enrolling is] too big a hassle” (625). By extension, food pantry nonusers may believe the benefit of free food does not outweigh the costs of obtaining it, and our research explores this decision-making process in detail.

Perceived costs can also be psychological. For example, a perceived stigma associated with receiving services could inhibit use of food assistance (Swanson et al. 2008; Dodds et al. 1996), food stamps, and nonprofit social services more broadly (Kissane 2010). Edin and Lein (1997) found that for some low-income mothers, assistance from public or private agencies was a last resort because it was “humiliating” (p. 146). However, other research suggests that stigma, embarrassment, and discomfort are not the primary deterrents (Duffy et al. 2002; Daponte et al. 1998; Martin et al. 2003; Daponte et al. 1999;

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