Private Food Assistance in the Deep South: Agency Profiles and Directors’ Perceptions of Needs and Opportunities Under Charitable Choice

Year: 2002

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Cashwell, Suzie T., John P. Bartkowski, Patricia A. Duffy, Joseph J. Molnar, Vanessa Casanova, and Marina Irimia-Vladu

Institution: Western Kentucky University

Project Contact:
Suzie T. Cashwell
Western Kentucky University
Social Work Program
1 Big Red Way
Bowling Green, KY 42101
Phone: 270-745-2929


Emergency food providers are an important source of food assistance to low-income households in many communities. The direct providers of emergency food assistance are often private faith-based organizations, which are the focus of the charitable choice provision of 1996 welfare reform legislation. The charitable choice provision enables government agencies to fund the service programs of faith-based organizations and has the potential to significantly alter the funding possibilities available to emergency food providers.

This study examined the types of local community agencies that provide food assistance to the poor in the Alabama-Mississippi area and information about the agencies’ directors. The authors collected primary data from a random sample of approximately 230 food pantry directors in Alabama and Mississippi. The survey provided information on the demographic characteristics of food pantry directors and their attitudes about poverty and food pantry use. The survey also contained questions designed to assess how knowledgeable the directors are about the charitable choice provision (that is, their familiarity with the general policy contours, specific legal provisions, and implementation status provision) and how receptive they are to receiving government funds.

The study found that about three-quarters of the surveyed food pantries are affiliated with a religious congregation. About two-fifths of faith-based food pantries are affiliated with religious congregations with fewer than 100 members, and another two-fifths are affiliated with religious congregations with 100-500 members. About 70 percent of the food pantries reported that they primarily serve rural populations. Three-fifths of the food pantry directors are White, and about 65 percent are female. Almost 80 percent have some education beyond high school, and about 40 percent reported an annual household income of $50,000 or more. More than two-thirds reported that they attend church at least once per week.

The survey provides information on the perceptions of food pantry directors regarding pantry users and their need for food assistance. Most of the directors reported that food pantry use is related to low wages in some industries or to sickness or physical disability, and that most food pantry users who are able to work are trying to find jobs. However, almost one-third of food pantry directors believed that too many people using food pantries should be working, and almost half believed that many people getting food are not honest about their needs.

The study also gauged food pantry directors’ awareness of the charitable choice provision and their openness to accepting government funding. A third of the surveyed food pantry directors reported that they do not currently receive government funds, while slightly more than half indicated that they would be willing to apply for government funds in the future. Most of the directors were generally aware of the legal responsibilities associated with receipt of government funding, but were also unsure of the general policies relating to the charitable choice provision, such as the process to apply for funds and the extent to which charitable choice has been implemented in the U.S.

The authors noted that additional research in other parts of the U.S. will help determine if there are broader regional variations or systematic rural-urban differences in the knowledge about the charitable choice provision among community-level organizations. However, the study results suggest that there is a need to educate organizations that can potentially benefit from the charitable choice provision of the 1996 welfare reform legislation so that they can make a reasoned choice about the new opportunities available to them.