Unreliable and Difficult-to-Access Food for Those in Need: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Urban Food Pantries
For individuals who are food insecure, food pantries can be a vital resource to improve access to adequate food. Access to adequate food may be conceptualized within five dimensions: availability (item variety), accessibility (e.g., hours of operation), accommodation (e.g., cultural sensitivity), affordability (costs, monetary or otherwise), and acceptability (e.g., as related to quality). This study examined the five dimensions of access in a convenience sample of 50 food pantries in the Bronx, NY. The design was cross-sectional. Qualitative data included researcher observations and field notes from unstructured interviews with pantry workers. Quantitative data included frequencies for aspects of food access, organized by the five access dimensions. Inductive analysis of quantitative and qualitative data revealed three main inter-related findings: (1) Pantries were not reliably open: only 50% of pantries were open during hours listed in an online directory (several had had prolonged or indefinite closures); (2) Even when pantries were open, all five access dimensions showed deficiencies (e.g., limited inventory, few hours, pre-selected handouts without consideration of preferences, opportunity costs, and inferior-quality items); (3) Open pantries frequently had insufficient food supply to meet client demand. To deal with mismatch between supply and demand, pantries developed rules for food provision. Rules could break down in cases of pantries receiving food deliveries, leading to workarounds, and in cases of compelling client need, leading to exceptions. Adherence to rules, versus implementation of workarounds and/or exceptions, was worker- and situation-dependent and, thus, unpredictable. Overall, pantry food provision was unreliable. Future research should explore clients’ perception of pantry access considering multiple access dimensions. Future research should also investigate drivers of mismatched supply and demand to create more predictable, reliable, and adequate food provision.
KeywordsUrban Food environment Community nutrition Food pantries Food insecurity
The authors would like to thank Aimee Eden, PhD, for reviewing an early draft of this manuscript and providing helpful feedback.
SCL conceived the study, designed the data collection tool and protocol, oversaw primary data collection, performed analyses, outlined the introduction and discussion sections, and drafted methods and results sections, including tables and figures. ZAG led the literature review, conducted primary data collection, contributed to qualitative data analysis, and assisted with the writing of introduction and discussion sections. HJF conducted primary data collection. ADB contributed to qualitative data analysis. EBR contributed to qualitative data analysis and manuscript writing. CBS oversaw quantitative data analysis. ARM created the map and assisted with geographic considerations. KCS provided guidance on study planning, and contributed to the literature review, data analysis, and writing. All authors helped revise the manuscript.
SCL is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under award K23HD079606. The content of this manuscript is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. Student stipends through the Albert Einstein College of Medicine supported data collection. For data collection and management, the study used REDCap electronic data capture tools hosted through the Harold and Muriel Block Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Einstein and Montefiore under grant UL1 TR001073.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest
None of the other authors have any disclosures.
This study was considered exempt under federal regulations 45 CFR 46.101 (b) (2,4) and Einstein IRB policy.
- 1.Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C. A., & Singh, A. Household food security in the United States in 2016—A report summary from the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. September 2017. Retrieved June 11, 2018 from https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/84973/err237_summary.pdf?v=42979.
- 2.Gundersen, C., Dewey, A., Crumbaugh, A., Kato, M., & Engelhard, E. (2017). Map the meal gap 2017: Highlights of findings for overall and child food insecurity. A report on county and congressional district food insecurity and county food cost in the United States in 2015 by feeding America. Retrieved June 26, 2018 from http://www.feedingamerica.org/research/map-the-meal-gap/2015/2015-mapthemealgap-exec-summary.pdf.
- 7.Shankar, P., Chung, R., & Frank, D. A. (2017). Association of food insecurity with children’s behavioral, emotional, and academic outcomes: A systematic review. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 38(2), 135–150.Google Scholar
- 10.Hosler, A. S., & Michaels, I. H. (2017). Association between food distress and smoking among racially and ethnically diverse adults, Schenectady, New York, 2013–2014. Preventing Chronic Disease, 14(E71):E71.Google Scholar
- 12.Seligman, H., Bindman, A., Vittinghoff, E., Kanaya, A., & Kushel, M. (2007). Food insecurity is associated with diabetes mellitus: Results from the National Health Examination and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999–2002. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(1), 5.Google Scholar
- 22.Food Bank of Central New York. Food Bank vs. Food Pantry. (2018). Retrieved May 6, 2018 from https://www.foodbankcny.org/about-us/food-bank-vs-food-pantry/.
- 23.Medicine NYAo. (2016). Food and Nutrition: Hard Truths About Eating Healthy. New York.Google Scholar
- 28.Martin, K. S., Colantonio, A. G., Picho, K., & Boyle, K. E. (2016). Self-efficacy is associated with increased food security in novel food pantry program. SSM Population Health, 11(2), 5.Google Scholar
- 29.Wilson, N. L. W., Just, D. R., Swigert, J., & Wansink, B. (2017). Food pantry selection solutions: A randomized controlled trial in client-choice food pantries to nudge clients to targeted foods. J Public Health (Oxf), 39(2), 366–372.Google Scholar
- 32.Hunger Free America. (2016). One in three Bronx children still living in food insecure households. New York: Hunger Free AmericaGoogle Scholar
- 33.Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. County Health Rankings and Roadmaps: Building a Culture of Health, County by County - New York: Bronx. (2017). Retrieved February 26, 2018 from http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/new-york/2017/rankings/bronx/county/outcomes/overall/snapshot.
- 34.Austensen, M., Been, V., O’Regan, K. M., Rosoff, S., & Yager, J. State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods, 2016 Focus: Poverty in New York City. NYU Furman Center http://furmancenter.org/files/sotc/SOC_2016_FOCUS_Poverty_in_NYC.pdf.
- 35.New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. NYC UHF 34 Neighborhoods. Retrieved September 18, 2012 from http://a816-dohbesp.nyc.gov/IndicatorPublic/EPHTPDF/uhf34.pdf.
- 36.Manson, S., Schroeder, J., Riper, D. V., & Ruggles, S. (2017). IPUMS national historical geographic information system: Version 12.0. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. 2014 American Community Survey: 5-year data at the 5-digit ZIP Code Tabulation Area level. https://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V12.0.
- 37.NYC Health. Community Health, & Survey, 2002–2016. Retrieved January 8, 2018 from https://a816-healthpsi.nyc.gov/epiquery/CHS/CHSXIndex.html.
- 38.Food Bank for New York City. Find Food Pantries. Retrieved June 2, 2014 from http://www.foodbanknyc.org/CD6F9867-926E-0C0F-558E6A7EC4762F9E?city=Bronx&CatCode=PANTRY&go.x=25&go.y=23&go=go.
- 43.Lucan, S. C., Maroko, A. R., Seitchik, J. L., Yoon, D. H., Sperry, L. E., & Schechter, C. B. (2018). Unexpected neighborhood sources of food and drink: Implications for research and community health. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.04.011.Google Scholar
- 44.Lucan, S. C., Maroko, A. R., Seitchik, J. L., Yoon, D., Sperry, L. E., & Schechter, C. B. (2018). Sources of foods that are ready-to-consume (‘grazing environments’) versus requiring additional preparation (‘grocery environments’): Implications for food-environment research and community health. Journal of Community Health. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-018-0498-9 Google Scholar
- 47.Bogdewic, S. P. (1999). Participant observation. In B. F. Crabtree & W. L. Miller (Eds.), Doing qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 47–69). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
- 48.The New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Neighbrohood Guide to Food and Assistance: Bronx Edition. 2013–2014. Retrieved December 13, 2013 from http://www.nyccah.org.
- 49.New York City Coalition Against Hunger. (2009). NYC Hunger Catastrophe avoided (for now): Soaring demand at food pantries and soup kitchens counter—Balanced by food stamps surge and extra recovery bill funding. Retrieved from http://www.nyccah.org/files/AnnualHungerSurveyReport_Nov09.pdf.
- 52.Harris, P. A., Taylor, R., Thielke, R., Payne, J., Gonzalez, N., & Conde, J. G. (2009). Research electronic data capture (REDCap)—A metadata-driven methodology and workflow process for providing translational research informatics support. Journal of Biomedical Informatics, 42(2), 377–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- 53.Crabtree, B. F., & Miller, W. L. (1999). The dance of interpretation. In B. F. Crabtree & W. L. Miller (Eds.), Doing qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 127–143). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
- 54.Bryan, A., Ginsburg, Z. A., Rubinstein, E. B., Frankel, H. J., Maroko, A. R., Schechter, C. B., et al. Foods and drinks available from urban food pantries: Nutritional quality by type, sourcing, and distribution method (under review).Google Scholar
- 61.Cooksey-Stowers, K., Read, M., Wolff, M., Martin, K., & Schwartz, M. Food Pantry Staff perceptions of using a nutrition rating system to guide client choice. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition (in press).Google Scholar
- 63.New York State Office of General Services. The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Retrieved April 22, 2018 from https://ogs.ny.gov/BU/SS/GDF/food-TEFAP.asp-4.