December 11, 2019

New Data Show about 1 in 10 Adults Turns To Charitable Food Assistance

This holiday season, many people will donate money, food, or time to a local food bank or soup kitchen. Yet how much do we know about the individuals and families who use charitable food assistance?

New data from the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS) reveal that more Americans than previously estimated turn to charitable food services to feed their families. As we discuss in our new brief, about 1 in 10 adults (10.3 percent) who were surveyed as part of the December 2018 WBNS said they or someone in their household received charitable food assistance in the 30 days before being surveyed.

Among low-income adults, the rate is even higher—about 1 in 5. The WBNS is an annual, nationally representative, internet-based survey of approximately 7,500 adults.

Our findings are significant not only because they inform efforts by service providers and advocates to improve access to charitable food assistance, but also because one of the main sources of information on the charitable feeding population—the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement (CPS-FSS)—tends to underestimate it.

The CPS-FSS estimates that 4.5 percent of the population—14.6 million people—use charitable food assistance. However, the CPS-FSS doesn’t ask everyone about charitable food use. Although all respondents earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) are asked about charitable food use, only those earning more than 185 percent of the FPL who also report trouble accessing nutritious food are asked.

This approach may overlook those with incomes above 185 percent of the FPL who may not be considered as having poor food access but who nonetheless use charitable food services during hard times. The WBNS improves on this measure by asking a similar set of questions to all respondents regardless of their household income.

Specifically, the charitable food questions in the WBNS are more open ended than those in the CPS-FSS in that they ask respondents about whether they received free groceries or free meals regardless of the source, rather than asking about food received from specific sites like churches, food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, or shelters.

What else did the 2018 WBNS reveal about adults using charitable food assistance?

  • Certain groups access charitable feeding more than others: women, single parents, non-Hispanic black and Hispanic adults, adults earning less than 200 percent of the FPL, and those without a high school diploma.
  • Unemployed adults and those with greater income volatility are more likely to use charitable feeding assistance. Yet among those who report using charitable feeding in the previous 30 days, about half were currently working.
  • Adults who report accessing charitable food assistance also struggle to meet other basic household needs, suggesting trade-offs between paying for medical bills, housing and utility costs, and food expenses. About two in three adults (65.8 percent) who accessed charitable food assistance reported a material hardship other than food insecurity (food insecurity rates among this population were also high—around 63 percent).
  • Many combine charitable food help with federal benefits, such as those from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), suggesting federal benefit programs are insufficient in helping people meet their needs. Nearly 55 percent of adults who relied on charitable feeding are part of a family who received nutrition assistance through SNAP; the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; or free or reduced-priced school meals.
  • Even adults with higher incomes who may not qualify for federal benefits use charitable food assistance. About 36 percent of adults who report charitable feeding use in the previous 30 days are in families earning at least 200 percent of the FPL.

At a time when the administration has either finalized or proposed several policies that will limit access to SNAP—including restricting states’ abilities to waive time limits for able-bodied adults without dependents in areas of high unemployment and take a flexible approach when determining household eligibility—charitable food systems may have to absorb increasing demand.

As a result, understanding how many people currently use the charitable food system—and who they are—is especially critical.

Low-income residents select fresh produce at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey on August 28, 2015 in Egg Harbor, New Jersey. The food bank saw an 11 percent increase in food distribution in Atlantic County after four of Atlantic City's major casinos closed in 2014, laying off 8,000 people. Photo by John Moore via Getty Images.

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