Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Private Food Assistance in the Deep South: Assessing Agency Directors' Knowledge of Charitable Choice

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Private Food Assistance in the Deep South: Assessing Agency Directors' Knowledge of Charitable Choice

Article excerpt

In recent years,food banking has emerged as an important tool in America's fight against hunger and malnutrition. At the same time, the charitable choice provision of 1996 welfare reform law has significantly expanded the opportunity for public-private partnerships in the provision of social services. Given the new opportunities ushered in by this legislation, this study examines the knowledge that food pantry directors in Alabama and Mississippi possess about charitable choice. Our study reveals that food pantry directors are generally lacking in knowledge about key charitable choice provisions, thereby limiting the potential for this initiative to be utilized fully in this area. We conclude by discussing the implications of these findings and specifying directions for future research.

Key words: food insecurity, food pantries, faith-based, religion, charitable choice, government policy


In an effort to level the playing field between faith-based and secular service providers, the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) forbids states from discriminating against religious organizations in the competitive bidding process. The provision was intended to introduce new funding opportunities --namely, public monies--for a host of services delivered by faith-based providers and to change the rules governing the relationship between faith-based organizations and the state. The latitude given to states under the block grant system provides a new resource pool to private social service agencies, including faith-based food pantries.

In many communities, the most visible and widespread antipoverty effort undertaken by religious groups is the operation of a food pantry. The food pantry model of relief, originally promoted as a temporary response to the economic recession and cuts in social welfare spending of the 1980s, has become an enduring and common feature of community life (Curtis 1997; Clancy, Bowering, & Poppendieck 1991). Unlike soup kitchens that provide hot meals, pantries distribute food for clients to take away and prepare at home. Most operate under the umbrella of a central food bank that collects, warehouses, and distributes food to its member agencies. Consistent with the trend toward public-private partnership in social welfare provision, food banks are stocked primarily with privately donated foodstuffs, supplemented with commodities provided by the federal government. Privately donated foods may come from growers, manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, or individuals.

This study takes as its primary point of departure the convergence between the decades-long evolution of food banking and the recent rise of charitable choice. Our study is the first of which we are aware to connect these issues and study them in tandem. The primary objective of this research is to determine the level of knowledge held by food pantry directors of the charitable choice policy initiative. A high level of knowledge about charitable choice among pantry directors would be a positive sign for the likelihood of success for this initiative in local communities. By contrast, if pantry directors show little awareness of this policy, it is unlikely that they or the organizations with which they work would be poised to take advantage of it.

To investigate this issue, we collected primary survey data from food pantry directors (n=235) in Alabama and Mississippi. Given the extensiveness of poverty and robust levels of faith-based civic engagement in this part of the Deep South, these two states provide an excellent opportunity for exploring the intersection between food provision and faith-based service delivery. The case of Mississippi is particularly striking. Recent data (1996-1998) reveal that 14 percent of all households in Mississippi are characterized by food insecurity--compared with a national rate of 9. …

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