Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Emergency Food Relief System: An Empirical Study

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Emergency Food Relief System: An Empirical Study

Article excerpt

One consumer market that has failed to attract much attention from consumer economists is the market for free food. There is evidence that the use of emergency food relief (EFR) in the United States--primarily through soup kitchens and food pantries--grew dramatically during the early 1980s and has continued at high levels (Brown 1987; Phisicians Task Force 1985; U.S. Conference of Mayors 1986). Not only has use continued at high levels, but EFR appears to be used by a much broader cross section of the population than the stereotypical single homeless man (Campbell et al. 1987; Hunger Action Network 1987; McGrath-Morris 1988; Rauschenbach et al. 1990; Weber 1988).

The increased role of soup kitchens and food pantries in providing support to the poor has raised two sets of public policy concerns: (1) why is there a need for an EFR system and (2) does the EFR system adequately meet the demand for its services from recipients? Relevant for the first set of policy concerns are the following questions: Are there holes in the "social safety net" such that needy persons do not qualify for public assistance and must resort to other forms of assistance? Are procedures for obtaining public assistance so onerous to some that they prefer alternative means of support? To what extent do users of EFR have regular sources of income (e.g., from employment, Social Security/pensions, or public assistance), but find their income insufficient to cover living expenses; are these insufficiencies chronic or episodic? Are all users of EFR truly in need of food assistance, or are some simply freeloaders?

Results from surveys of EFR users suggest that eligibility restrictions for public assistance programs; obstacles to using public benefits among the eligible; homelessness; and insufficiency of wages and public assistance benefits all play a role in the demand for EFR (Hunger Action Network 1987; Legal Action Center for the Homeless 1987; Physicians Task Force 1985; Rauschenbach et al. 1990). In addition, observed use of soup kitchens throughout any given month has been shown to be related to the payment schedules of public assistance benefits and food stamps (Thompson et al. 1988). No studies have been found that estimate demand for EFR or that compare those poor persons who use eFR with those who do not.

The second set of policy concerns focuses on the ability of the EFR system to meet demand for its product. Are there areas where needy persons lack access to EFR? If so, what factors affect the ability of the EFR system to meet this demand? Finally, what are the consequences when food assistance is not available? While structure and operation of soup kitchens and food pantries have been described (McGrath-Morris 1988; Weber 1988), the questions posed here have not been fully addressed.

A theoretical model of the EFR system is developed in this paper. From this model, reduced form equations of the supply of soup kitchen and food pantry meals are specified and estimated using data from 57 New York State counties outside of New York Cith (hereafter referred to as upstate New York). These equations provide insights into the performance of the EFR system as well as into aspects of the demand for EFR meals by recipients.


Besides federal government entitlement and food assistance programs (e.g., food stamps, WIC, school breakfast/lunch programs), free food is distributed to needy individuals primarily through soup kitchens, food pantries, and surplus commodity distributions (under the federal Needy Family Food Distribution Program). This study is limited to soup kitchens and food pantries.

Soup kitchens provide prepared meals for individuals. While some are associated with shelters and are restricted to shelter residents, most soup kitchens provide meals on a first-come, first-serve basis. Few have eligibility requirements or limit frequency of use. …

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