Unreliable and Difficult-to-Access Food for Those in Need: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Urban Food Pantries

Zoë A Ginsburg, Alexander D Bryan, Ellen B Rubinstein, Hilary J Frankel, Andrew R Maroko, Clyde B Schechter, Kristen Cooksey Stowers, Sean C Lucan
Journal of Community Health 2018 July 17
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.

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