Food Pantries are Improving the Diets of Those Who Depend on Them, Research Says

The pandemic didn’t create food insecurity in the United States. It merely brought greater attention to the vital role of food pantries across the country. 

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most of the 300 million Americans who relied on food pantries in 2017 experienced food insecurity. Basically, they didn’t have access to enough food. And for as many as half of these people, their food insecurity was so severe that they sometimes skipped meals or didn’t eat for days at a time.

By virtually every account, it’s believed that the pandemic has made food insecurity an even bigger problem. Historic unemployment rates have forced many to turn to food pantries for the first time. It’s also dramatically increased the number of people who are experiencing severe food insecurity.

In the best of times, food pantries were occasionally knocked for the quality of the food they were giving out. With it coming in from so many sources, it can be “hard to control for nutritional quality,” says Heather Eicher-Miller. “And getting enough healthy food is challenging.”

Eicher-Miller is an associate professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. She’s also extensively studied food insecurity in the U.S. Based on several studies she recently completed in the Midwest, Eicher-Miller says there’s ample reason to believe that food pantries are improving the diets of those who rely on them.

A significant portion of their diet

First, she says, for many people who turn to food pantries, the food they receive makes up a significant portion of their diet. “Most people who use food pantries visit multiple pantries,” Eicher-Miller writes in an article about her findings for The Conversation.

A separate study estimated that food pantries provided a third of the food their beneficiaries consumed on a daily basis. So, food pantries aren’t just filling a crack in the system; they’re filling a Grand Canyon-size void for some.

The frequency of food pantry visits is also closely linked to nutrition, Eicher-Miller says. “Going more than once a month, rather than once a month or less, is linked with a higher-quality diet, or doing a better job of meeting the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the science-based dietary guidance that the federal government maintains to promote health,” she writes.

And that small improvement, she notes, is very often enough to help stave off chronic disease.

Greater diversity equates to better nutrition

It also turns out that the food provided by pantries is a reliable source of nutrients, after all. After surveying more than 600 people who had used a food pantry about the amounts and kinds of food they ate and where that food came from, “we found that compared to supermarkets, other stores, and restaurants, food pantries provided the most fruit, something that most people in the U.S. at all income levels need to eat more of every day,” Eicher-Miller writes.

Americans, regardless of their income level, also generally don’t get enough fiber, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. But Eicher-Miller found that the food provided by pantries was the highest in these nutrients among the food sources of people who visit pantries.

A big reason for that is people who depend on pantries tend to eat a wider variety of food, which helps ensure that basic nutritional needs are met. “The day after visiting a food pantry,” Eicher-Miller writes, “people ate two more kinds of food compared with what they ate the day before.”

How you can help us

For the last 55 years, NORWESCAP has been helping to support low-income families and individuals across Northwest New Jersey. Today, as our region and country face the threat from COVID-19, that commitment is stronger than ever.

If you’re looking for opportunities to volunteer, donate materials, or otherwise support NORWESCAP’s work during this crisis, call MaryBeth Ringo at 848-459-5882 or email her at Monetary donations may be made here.