Four Signs that Food Pantries Improve the Diets of Low-income People — Much More Data Needed in Studying Food Pantries

Four Signs that Food Pantries Improve the Diets of Low-income People

By Heather Eicher-Miller, Associate Professor of Nutrition Science, Purdue University

May 2021 – The nation has thousands of food pantries, places that give cash-strapped people free food with few questions asked. These organizations can occupy everything from an entire building to a literal pantry – as in a few shelves in a church basement.

Most of the estimated 300 million Americans who relied on food pantries in 2017 experienced food insecurity, meaning that they didn’t have access to enough food. Even before the pandemic hit, up to half of the people who use food pantries live in food insecurity that is so severe that they sometimes skip meals or don’t eat for whole days at a time.

Food insecurity is, by many accounts, an even bigger problem now.

Food pantries get the food they give away from many sources, sometimes making it hard to control nutritional quality as they seek to obtain the right quantity of food. And getting enough healthy food to give away is challenging.

I am a nutrition science researcher who studies what food-insecure Americans eat. My team and I have recently completed several studies on rural food pantries in Midwestern counties. We found four signs that food pantries improve the diets of low-income people.

1. A substantial amount of food

Food pantries are an important source of food.

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.

What’s in those boxes and bags accounts for an estimated 36% of what the people who pick them up eat, according to our recent article in the British Journal of Nutrition.

2. A good source of nutrients

Having access to enough food is critical, but the variety, nutrients and quality are also important for long-term health. We asked 613 U.S. Midwestern food pantry clients about the amounts and kinds of food they ate and where that food came from. We found that compared to supermarkets, other stores and restaurants, food pantries provided the most fruit, something that most people in the U.S. at all income levels need to eat more of every day.

Likewise, Americans generally get too little fiber, calcium, vitamin D and potassium, making these nutritional deficits a public health concern – even for people not facing economic hardship. We found that the amounts of these nutrients in the items from food pantries were also highest or tied for the highest compared with all other food sources in the diets of people who visit food pantries.

Even so, Americans who use food pantries don’t get enough of these nutrients. Another concern is that provisions from food pantries tend to contain too much sodium, something most Americans need to curb.

It’s easier to eat right when your diet includes a lot of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. 

3. More visits = better nutrition

Making more trips to food pantries often means better nutrition.

Going more than once a month, rather than once a month or less, is linked with a higher-quality diet, or doing a better job of meeting the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the science-based dietary guidance that the federal government maintains to promote health.

For example, the average American would get a failing grade, with a score of 59% for their consumption of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein, along with sodium, added sugar and saturated fat. People who rely on food pantries fare even worse.

Those using food pantries once a month or less would score 39%, while those visiting more frequently would score 44%. Higher dietary quality, even just a 5 percentage point gain, may improve someone’s health and help stave off chronic diseases.

4. A wider variety of food, including whole fruits

Eating a wide variety of food helps meet basic nutritional needs. The day after visiting a food pantry, people ate two more kinds of food compared with what they ate the day before.

Specifically, people who visited a food pantry ate more fruit, including whole fruits – such as eating an apple as opposed to drinking a glass of apple juice. Eating more whole fruits is especially helpful because they have a lot of fiber and other nutrients that can help prevent cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.        Pb

Dr. Eicher-Miller’s research is focused on food insecurity, which affects 12% of U.S. households and creates uncertainty regarding the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods.  Her work has documented immediate and chronic adverse dietary and health outcomes associated with food insecurity among diverse populations.  Her efforts to evaluate and create evidence-based interventions, programs, and policies has reduced food insecurity and improved access to resources which enhance health.

Much More Data Needed in Studying Food Pantries

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.

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.         pb