Many people in the US turn to charitable food sources, such as food pantries and free meal programs, when budgets run tight. In this brief, we use responses to 2018 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey questions to provide new estimates of charitable food use by demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and to explore how use of charitable food intersects with other material hardship measures and safety net program participation.
We find the following:
- Approximately 1 in 10 adults ages 18 to 64 (10.3 percent) reported that they or someone in their household used charitable food in the 30 days before the survey. Among low-income adults, the rate is a significantly higher 1 in 5. These results suggest many more Americans are turning to food pantries and free meal programs than may be indicated by other national survey data.
- Some people report accessing charitable food in the past 30 days more than others, including adults ages 18 to 34, women, non-Hispanic black and Hispanic adults, single parents, adults who did not complete high school, home renters, and adults with annual family income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL).
- People who are unemployed or out of the labor force, especially those with health problems or a disability, and/or who experienced income volatility in the prior 12 months are also more likely to access charitable food services. Though employed respondents access charitable food services much less, about half of all those who reported accessing these services in the past 30 days were working.
- In addition to reporting high rates of food insecurity, people whose households access charitable food services are typically struggling with other material hardships, such as trouble paying for housing, utilities, and/or medical bills. Approximately two out of three people who have used charitable food assistance in the past 30 days report material hardship beyond food insecurity, indicating that other priorities, such as rent, may compete with food spending in family budgets.
- Many people who use charitable food services also have accessed public safety net programs: 57.6 percent of people in households accessing charitable food reported that their families received medical assistance, including Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and 54.6 percent reported that their families received federal nutrition assistance in the past year, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; and/or free or reduced-price school meals. However, about 36 percent of families accessing charitable food report incomes above 200 percent of FPL, which makes them ineligible for such benefit programs.
This information can be useful to social service providers who plan for and provide charitable food services and policymakers, who need insights on how well federal nutrition programs address the needs of low-income families.