Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Use of Food Pantries and Food Stamps in Low-Income Households in the United States

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Use of Food Pantries and Food Stamps in Low-Income Households in the United States

Article excerpt

Using the Current Population Survey data for 1999, a bivariate probit model was estimated to determine food stamp and food pantries participation for low-income households. Household income, the level of food insecurity, household structure, and metro versus nonmetro residence affected participation decisions in both programs. Shorter application forms for food stamp benefits encouraged food stamp participation. Food Stamp Program participation and food pantry use were found to be positively correlated.


A long-standing goal of U.S. policy has been to ensure that all Americans have access to an adequate and nutritious food supply. Toward this end, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has administered a variety of food assistance and nutrition programs, the largest and best known of which is the Food Stamp Program. Throughout the latter part of the 1990s, enrollment in the Food Stamp Program steadily declined (Wilde et al. 2000). At the same time, use by low-income families of private food assistance, primarily in the form of food pantries, appeared to grow precipitously (U.S. Conference of Mayors 1998, 1999, 2000).

Because widespread use of the private emergency food network is a relatively recent phenomenon, research on food pantry use is not as extensive as that done on food stamps and other forms of government assistance. In particular, the interaction between use of food pantries and food stamps is poorly understood. It is not yet known, for example, whether food stamp users--if all other factors, such as family structure and food insecurity level, are the same--are less likely, more likely, or equally likely to use food pantries compared with those in similar circumstances who do not participate in the Food Stamp Program. If food pantries are viewed by their clients as substitutes for food stamps, the simultaneous rise in food pantry use and decline in food stamp use by eligible families may be an indication of preference. If this is not the case, the decline in food stamp use among eligible families may present a more troubling picture.

The objective of this research is to assess the factors affecting the use of both food pantries and food stamps by low-income families. Data from the 1999 Current Population Survey (CPS), which provides a national sample, are used in the analysis. Our study will contribute to the general state of knowledge about food assistance use by low-income families. Further, we will use a simultaneous equation system (bivariate probit model) to assess the relationship between food stamp use and food pantry use. We know of no previous study that has taken this approach and no previous work that directly explores the relationship of food pantry and food stamp use for a national sample.


Food banks rose to the forefront of America's fight against hunger during the early 1980s. Food banks are so named because these umbrella organizations serve as centralized warehouses for the collection of emergency food, which is distributed to smaller agencies (e.g., food pantries) that provide the food to consumers. Although some food banks and food pantries existed before the early 1980s, their primary growth has occurred in the past two decades, fueled by policy changes from the early years of the Reagan administration. When eligibility for food stamps and other government food assistance programs was tightened and the amount of benefits reduced for many households, Congress responded to the protests of antihunger advocates by passing legislation in 1982, allowing for the distribution of surplus commodities (Daponte and Bane 2000). In 1983, this program was formalized as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). TEFAP commodities provided charitable agencies with a steady source of food, enabling the growth of private food assistance. (See Daponte and Bane [2000], for more details on the TEFAP program and a general history of private food assistance. …

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