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Poor miss out on food aid

A study involving MU researchers breaks new ground by looking at who uses food pantries and who doesn’t
Thursday, March 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Many low-income households do not take full advantage of food assistance available to them in their communities, according to a new study conducted by two MU researchers.

The study, conducted in the Kansas City metropolitan area from 1998 to 2001, indicates that although many low-income households qualify for both federal and private food assistance, few use both simultaneously.

Prior to the release of the study, there was very little data about the people private food pantries serve.

“We didn’t have very good data at all on food banks; it was very important to get data on who uses these programs,” said Jane Mosley, one of the researchers of the study. Mosley, an assistant research professor in MU’s Truman School of Public Affairs, worked with Laura Tiehen from the USDA’s Economic Research Service on the study.

“For most people, food stamps are sort of the first line of defense,” Mosley said. “They will turn to food pantries during months of hardship.”

Those difficult months are not uncommon, said Tom Rich, assistant director of the Central Missouri Food Bank. “Our research shows that of the women we serve, 60 percent have to choose between paying their utility bills and buying food, and 50 percent have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their kids on a monthly basis,” he said.

The Central Missouri Food Bank is a private regional hunger relief network that serves 31 counties in the mid-Missouri area. In 2003, it distributed more than 17.9 million pounds of food and personal care products.

The MU study found that four times as many households used food stamps as used pantries in a given month. Only 10 percent of food stamp recipients use a food pantry in the same month.

Additionally, throughout a 31/2 year period, more than half of all private assistance users received food stamps, but at any given time, only about one-third of private assistance users also received food stamps.

The use of food pantries has been sporadic, but peaks in November and December when families receive holiday food baskets. Families receiving food stamps do not receive an extra allotment of stamps from the government during the holidays. Instead, for additional food, they are usually referred to local nonprofit agencies such as the Salvation Army, said Jennifer Roberts, county manager for the Department of Social Services’ Boone County Family Support Division.

The study also showed that elderly persons tended to rely more heavily on private assistance.

“Senior citizens will not file for food stamps because they see it as welfare and there’s a shame and a stigma attached to that,” Rich said.

The food bank currently serves about 65 percent of people in need in the area. It has a five-year plan, enacted in 2001, that aims to increase its service to 80 percent of those in need. That goal was set because the remaining 20 percent will probably never take advantage to the services the bank provides because of transportation costs and other barriers, such as social stigma, Rich said.

The findings indicate that although at some point many low-income families use both public and private programs, those programs perform different functions, and both are necessary.

“Food pantries fill a very important need and serve a wide clientele,” Mosley said.

Possible uses of the study’s findings include tailoring campaigns to attract people who qualify. For example, food stamp outreach efforts may be linked to food pantries where the elderly are more comfortable, Mosley said.

In September 2003, 5,816 families received food stamps. In February of 2004, that number increased to 6,035, Roberts said. According to Missouri Kids Count, 20.6 percent of children in Boone County received food stamps; statewide, the percentage is 22 percent.

“The biggest problem we have in society with respect to poverty is there’s still a stigma attached to being poor and asking for help,” Rich said. “They see it as a handout. We see it as a hand up.”


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