In 2016, over 15.6 million U.S. households experienced food insecurity at some point, meaning at least one member of the household had limited access to adequate food due to lack of money or other resources. 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). For those who are food insecure, food pantries can be a vital resource for accessing food and meeting basic nutritional requirements.

Dr. Andrew Maroko

A study co-authored by Dr. Andrew Maroko, a professor of Environmental, Occupational, and Geospatial Health Sciences at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy (CUNY SPH) and Faculty Fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute examined the five dimensions of access in a sample of 50 food pantries in the Bronx borough of New York City. Analysis of the data revealed three main findings. First, the pantries were not reliably open limiting accessibility to them. Second, even when pantries were open, all five access dimensions showed deficiencies such as limited inventory, few hours during which the pantry was accessible, food handouts were pre-selected without consideration of preferences, opportunity costs, and items being offered were of inferior-quality. And, third, open pantries frequently had insufficient food supply to meet client demand. The findings from the study were published in the Journal of Community Health.

Maroko noted that due to the mismatch between food supply and demand at the pantries, rules and informal “work-arounds” were often developed, leading to increased unpredictability of the access to and quality of food at pantries. The investigators suggest that future research should explore the drivers of mismatched food supply and demand at pantries to create more predictable, reliable, and adequate food provision.

Montage of images from Bronx food pantries, 2014. Top row: signs announcing pantry closures. Bottom row: guest bill of rights, eligibility/access criteria, and provider bill of rights. Source: Ginsburg et al. (2018).

Ginsburg, Z. A., Bryan, A. D., Rubinstein, E. B., Frankel, H. J., Maroko, A. R., Schechter, C. B., Cooksey Stowers, K., Lucan, S. C. (2018). Unreliable and Difficult-to-Access Food for Those in Need: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Urban Food Pantries. Journal of Community Health. doi:10.1007/s10900-018-0549-2