Food Stamp Use among Food Pantry Clients in the United States

Article excerpt

Introduction

For impoverished families in the United States, the social safety net consists largely of "in-kind" assistance, such as food stamps or housing vouchers, with more limited availability of cash welfare. Of all anti-poverty programs in the United States, the Food Stamp Program is the most commonly used, reaching about five times as many households as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the nation's most widely available cash welfare program. Approximately five and a half million people in the United States received TANF in fiscal 2005, compared to nearly twenty-six million people receiving food stamps.

The Food Stamp Program is available nationwide, with eligibility rules and benefit levels largely set by the federal government. Participation rates among those eligible for food stamps have never been close to 100 percent, however, and paradoxically, levels of self-reported "food security," defined as having access to enough food at all times to lead an active, healthy life (Nord, Andrews, and Carlson 2006), are often lower among families receiving food stamps than among low-income families who do not participate in the program (see for example Wilde and Nord 2005). Various theoretical and statistical models have been used to explain or control for this outcome; however, it remains clear that the Food Stamp Program has not eliminated food insecurity in the United States, even among participants.

Helping to fill the food security gap in the United States is an extensive network of private emergency food assistance programs. Emergency aid generally comes in the form of either prepared meals at a shelter or a kitchen program, or in the form of groceries to take away and prepare at home that clients pick up at a food pantry. Food pantries are by far the most widely used form of private emergency food assistance. America's Second Harvest (A2H), the nation's largest network of private food assistance agencies, estimated that approximately twenty-two to twenty-five million people used their affiliated food pantries during 2005 (A2H 2006, 1). Because some food pantries exist outside the A2H network, these figures likely represent a slight undercount of all U.S. residents using food pantries.

Only 36 percent of America's Second Harvest food pantry clients report receiving food stamps, although the study authors deem it probable that many of those not receiving food stamps are eligible (A2H 2006, 3). The objective of this paper is to assess how food stamp benefits affect the food security status of pantry clients. The analysis will use an extensive national sample of food pantry clients from data supplied by America's Second Harvest.

Background

Food Security: What It Means, How It's Measured

A food secure household is one that has access at all times to sufficient food to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Food insecurity, on the other hand, is widely defined as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways" (Anderson 1990, 1598). At a national level, food security is measured annually via a survey instrument, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture as a supplement to the Current Population Survey. This food security module contains 18 questions concerning behaviors and experiences related to household food security. The questions cover a range of experiences, from worrying that food would run out to having household children unable to eat for a whole day because of lack of resources to get food. Based on responses to survey items, households are characterized as food secure or food insecure. The latter group is further sub-defined as having low food security or very low food security (previously "food insecure without hunger" and "food insecure with hunger"). Those with low food security experience some difficulties obtaining enough food and may have resorted to various coping measures, but their normal eating habits were not seriously disrupted. …