By Dr. Sarah Bowen
A lot of the mothers we interviewed have told us that food pantries are an important way that they make sure that they have enough food for their families. They are not alone; since the 1980s, the number of local food banks and food pantries has increased dramatically. Today, more than two billion pounds of “emergency foods”—food provided by food pantries—are distributed each year to more than 25 million Americans.
As part of our research, we interviewed the directors of 28 food pantries, to see what challenges they faced. We also asked the mothers in our studies about their experiences using the food pantries.
The mothers we interviewed talked about feeling grateful that the food pantries were there. Food pantries served as an important “stop gap,” when food or money were tight or during unexpected circumstances (such as losing a job or facing major health issues). Some mothers also talked about how it was hard for them to go to food pantries; they said that they had to be “pretty bad off” to go to a pantry. Some mothers talked about food pantries’ complicated rules: for example, only being open at certain times or on certain days or limiting the number of days per month that people could visit. They also talked about the unpredictability of the foods they received and the relative lack of healthy options.” “They just give canned foods and box foods. There’s no meat. You have to try and make something out of it,” one mother told us. Other moms talked about how they frequently received breads and baked goods, but not a lot of dairy, meat, or fresh produce.
Our interviews with the food pantry directors emphasized the challenges that they faced in trying to serve the families that needed them. Almost all of the pantry directors said that demand for their services had increased over the last year, and 60% felt that they were falling short of meeting their clients’ needs. Many said that they always managed to find something for everyone, but that sometimes they had to give people smaller amounts of food. Many emphasized how their ability to meet people’s needs varied widely from week to week. “This week, we are meeting the needs, but overall, we are falling short, especially with meat,” one pantry director told us. Another explained, “We try to stretch it as much as we can, but we do run out.” Although directors said that they tried to provide nutritious food, this was difficult. Most were able to provide canned fruits and vegetables, while fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products were less prevalent, due to lack of refrigeration and storage space and the types of donations that they received.
As the mothers we interviewed told us, food pantries are an essential resource in their communities. The food pantry directors are working hard to try to meet the needs of their clients and provide food that is as nutritious as possible. But they are strapped for cash and resources, too. In Harnett County, given the high number of farms in the county, the community-based action group identified “connecting farms and food pantries” as a top priority. We have started meeting with food pantry directors and farmers, to see how we might help connect these two groups and help them work together in ways that can help farmers, food pantries, and community members. We will continue to update you on this work. If you would like to get involved or offer your ideas, please let us know!