Food Pantries

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FOOD PANTRIES. What are known as emergency feeding organizations in the United States include food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters operated by nonprofit organizations and faith-based agencies. The emergency food assistance network provides food to people who lack the resources to obtain adequate amounts of food through conventional means. Food banks solicit donations of surplus or salvage food that they distribute to food pantries (which provide emergency grocery packages), soup kitchens and shelters (which provide on-site meals), and other feeding programs. Although religious organizations and nonprofit agencies have historically distributed food and meals to people in need, the sharp increases in such requests beginning in the 1980s associated with high unemployment, cuts in the social safety net, decline in the value of public assistance benefits, and increases in housing and other costs led to a proliferation of food pantries, soup kitchens, and government programs that defined hunger and homelessness as temporary "emergency" problems.

In 2001 the America's Second Harvest provider network included approximately 26,300 food pantries in the United States, three-quarters of which are run by faith-based agencies affiliated with churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious organizations. These food pantries received more than half (59 percent) of the food they distributed from food banks, with religious organizations, direct purchases, and federal government commodity programs supplying the remainder. More than 90 percent of these food pantries use volunteer staff, and many rely entirely on volunteers. Only 33 percent of the pantry programs have any paid staff.

Food pantries, also known as food closets, food shelves, or grocery programs, distribute nonprepared foods and other grocery items to needy clients, who then prepare and use these items where they live. In the United States, food pantries are primarily operated through referral systems, in which trained staff at nonprofit organizations screen clients and refer them to pantries operated by volunteers. The majority of food pantries prebag the food distributed to clients, while others allow clients to select their own food "grocery-store style." To the extent possible, pantries use several different factors, including household size, household composition (number of children, adults, elderly), and health status of household members, to determine the contents of a food order. Some follow nutritional guidelines in selecting prebagged items. On average, food pantries distribute food items to provide three meals per day per household member for three to five days. A sample list of items distributed to a single adult by a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, food pantry includes cereal, canned vegetables, Jell-o, juice, bread, canned beef stew, ground turkey, canned fruit, pasta, spaghetti sauce, and paper products. Some food pantries provide additional services. In 2001, 18.2 percent of the food pantries in the America's Second Harvest food provider network also provided nutrition counseling, 15 percent provided eligibility counseling for food stamps, 20.3 percent provided utility bill assistance, and 42.9 percent provided clothing assistance.

Many food pantries require that recipients run out of food prior to requesting assistance and categorize this condition as a food emergency. They also focus on serving clients compatible with their service mission and have much less need for documentation and much more trust in recipients' testimonies than government agencies. Only recently have U.S. food pantries begun to enforce explicit eligibility standards, such as income or residency, or require documentation of eligibility.

In the late twentieth century, the U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness surveyed the twenty largest American cities, revealing steady increases in demand for emergency food assistance, a rising proportion of those requesting food assistance who are families with children, more requests from working families and individuals, unmet demand for emergency food assistance, and numerous cities where food assistance facilities must turn people away. In 2001 more than half (59.8 percent) of the food pantries in America's Second Harvest food provider network served more clients than they had in 1998. More than two-thirds (67.9 percent) of these pantries experienced problems related to funding, and about two-fifths (39 percent) had problems related to food supplies.

Government data indicate that at least 9.2 million households in the United States were food insecure in 1999 and that approximately 3 million households had experienced hunger at some point in that year. The food insecure households contained an estimated 27 million people, of whom 11 million were children (Andrews et al., 2000). The existence of large numbers of people without secure access to adequate nutritious food represents a serious national concern. An important response to this problem has been the growth of private sector institutions created to provide food for the needy.

Throughout the United States, food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters play a critical role in meeting the nutritional needs of America's low-income population. These organizations help meet the needs of people and households that otherwise would lack sufficient food. However, emergency feeding organizations are ultimately limited by the depth of the hunger problem, their reliance on volunteers, the availability of government and food industry surpluses, lack of legally enforceable rights for food recipients, and the discrepancies between where food providers are located and where those who need food live. Seeing these organizations as the primary solution to the problem of hunger diverts attention from the societal relationships that produce hunger, including economic restructuring, erosion of public assistance benefits, major cuts in social welfare programs, and high housing, medical, and other costs.

See also Class, Social; Food Banks; Meals on Wheels; Poverty; School Meals; Soup Kitchens; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program.


Andrews, Margaret, Mark Nord, Gary Bickel, and Steven Carlsen. Household Food Security in the United States, 1999. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, 2000.

Daponte, Beth Osborne, Gordon Lewis, Seth Sanders, and Lowell Taylor. Food Pantries and Food Pantry Use in Allegheny County. Pittsburgh, Pa.: H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994.

Kim, Myoung, Jim Ohls, and Rhonda Cohen. Hunger in America 2001: National Report. Princeton, N.J.: Mathematica Policy Research, 2001.

Poppendieck, Janet. Sweet Charity? New York: Viking, 1998.

U.S. Conference of Mayors. A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities: 2001. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2001.

Karen A. Curtis