Debunking 4 Misconceptions About Food Pantries

by Anina Estrem

Published: 3/13/23, Last updated: 3/13/23

Anina Estrem is the Operations Manager at FISH of Vancouver Food Pantry in Vancouver, Washington. A version of this originally appeared on Estrem’s blog “Who Deserves to Eat?”

When the COVID-19 lockdown first began, the government recognized that millions of workplaces shutting down would astronomically increase hunger rates across the U.S. In response to the literally miles-long lines of cars at drive-through food bank distributions, the USDA provided extra dollars to SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) which became essential for keeping millions of families fed for the next three years. On March 1, the last of these additional benefits expired. The end of this program will reduce the amount of money for food by approximately $95 per person per month.

Facing rising costs of living and devastating inflation, more people than ever have no other option than to visit their neighborhood food pantries to keep their families fed. Hunger assistance programs are bracing themselves for massively increased attendance, especially from first-time clients.

Particularly in America, there is a strong stigma against using welfare, even among those who implement and support essential programs like food assistance. Poverty is a result of inequitable opportunity, but that is an uncomfortable reality for a culture that preaches equality for all. That’s why discourse on welfare and food assistance tends to revolve around who we believe deserves this help instead.

We all need food to survive. When we implement systems or policies based on who we believe deserves access to food, we make a radical statement about who deserves to live- and who doesn’t.

Effective anti-hunger efforts must begin by embracing the idea that everyone deserves to eat, and examining all the ways we can live this ideal. It helps to examine what assumptions we may have about people who use emergency food assistance.

What are some of the most common biases about food pantry clients?

People use food pantries when they don’t need to

No one waits in line for an hour in January for a couple of grocery bags of discarded food if they don’t have to. No matter how hard we work to make it better, the process of using a food pantry is uncomfortable, humbling, and undignified. No one uses these services unless they must.

People should only use food pantries if they can’t afford their own food

If hunger were only about food, it would be so much easier to solve! Unfortunately, having money for food is indelibly intertwined with the cost of housing, healthcare, and transportation. Spending on food is more flexible than these fixed costs, which means it is often the first thing to be sacrificed.  Food pantry clients may have money in their bank account- budgeted to pay their rent and utilities, medical prescriptions, fuel costs, or even shoes for their growing children. Just because someone can technically afford to buy food doesn’t mean that they should if our end goal is a healthy, stable community.

Food pantries are only for the unemployed

Most food pantry clients have at least one household member who is employed. However, families are often restricted by childcare responsibilities, disability and health challenges, or transportation limitations which can all make it hard to find a job that pays a living wage. Although unemployment is dropping, too many people are still underemployed and not able to support themselves no matter how hard they work or how many jobs they have.

Poverty is static

I regularly encounter volunteers or donors who are surprised to see a nice car in the parking lot or a client with a new iPhone. The American concept of poverty assumes that if someone experiencing poverty owns something nice or expensive, it must be because they make irresponsible financial decisions.

People often experience poverty and hunger in phases throughout their lifetime. All it takes is one medical bill or job loss before someone who considered themselves financially comfortable may require the services of a food pantry. Conversely, a promotion or completion of an educational degree may support a previously struggling household. There are endless possibilities for why someone needs a food pantry, whether it’s a one-time visit or for long-term use.

As an anti-hunger advocate, I try to encourage my staff and volunteers to recognize these (often unconscious) biases that may impact how we welcome clients, what and how much food we allow them to take, and the dignity of the process.

There are many, many actions steps that food pantries can make to improve the experience for their shoppers, but they all depend on the organization wholeheartedly embracing the idea that everyone deserves to eat.

Top photo courtesy of Anina Estrem. 

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