The Evolution, Cost, and Operation of the Private Food Assistance Network
B. O. Daponte
S. L. Bade
Delivery of assistance to the poor has changed drastically in the past 20 years. While the availability of cash assistance has decreased, the availability of food assistance has widened. The most substantial change in assistance available to the poor may have been the emergence of food pantries as a source of free food to prepare at home. Large numbers of Americans rely on food pantries, but many policymakers, academics, and participants in the private food assistance network have limited understanding of the network. This paper aims to fill that gap by examining how the network evolved, how much it costs, and how it operates. We provide a detailed review of domestic food policy since the 1930s, show how agricultural and welfare policies contributed to developing a supply of free food available to the needy, and explain how private efforts, such as the creation of Second Harvest, resulted in a rise in food pantries. Our research also highlights policy changes in the Food Stamp program that may have contributed to the tremendous demand for free food in the 1980s. Using secondary data, we estimate that the private food assistance network costs about $2.3 billion annually, making it about one-twelfth the size of the Food Stamp program. We show that the benefits available to the needy from the network differ among geographic areas. We highlight the heterogeneity of organizations in the network by examining two food banks, the Connecticut Food Bank and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. We conclude that the private food assistance network provides the needy with valuable resources and offer recommendations for making the public food safety net more effective.
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