Practices Used by Limited-Resource Audiences To Maintain Food Security

Year: 2000

Research Center: Department of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis

Investigator: Keenan, Debra Palmer, Dr. Sylvia Ridlen, Puneeta Sonya Sadani, Nancy Scotto Rosato, and Kathryn Kempson

Institution: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Project Contact:
Debra Palmer Keenan
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Department of Nutritional Sciences
26 Nichol Ave., Davison Hall
New Brunswick, NJ 08901-2882


The purpose of this project was to determine whether limited-resource individuals are using unsafe practices to maintain food security. The answer has implications for how we define food security. Keenan et al. argue that people who frequently rely on unsafe practices to obtain food should not be considered food secure, and that therefore such practices should be measured explicitly in food security surveys. The USDA food security module to the Current Population Survey, used to construct State and national estimates of food insecurity, does not include information on how food is obtained.

Most of the literature on food acquisition practices among limited-resource audiences identify only conventional cost-cutting strategies—buying in bulk, using coupons and price club stores, buying food on sale, going to different supermarkets to get the best deal, and making a grocery list before shopping. These are practices used in traditional shopping venues. However, Olson, Rauschenback, Fonillo, and Kendall found that women from rural New York regularly obtained food from other sources, such as from hunting, fishing, gardening, and getting eggs, milk, and meat from relatives and friends. Ahuluwalia, Dodds, and Baligh identified food acquisition practices that threatened the health or well-being of low-income families, including delaying bill payment, skipping meals to provide food for children, and locking refrigerators and cabinets to ration food. Other studies have reported men committing crimes so they will be sent to jail, where they will have food and shelter; women stealing food for their children; and low-income men and women buying food on credit, selling blood or possessions, eating pet food, and engaging in prostitution, theft, or other illegal activities for food and money.

The research team conducted semistructured, indepth interviews with professionals (n=18) and paraprofessionals (n=33) at Rutgers Cooperative Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program (FSNEP) who had worked as nutrition educators for at least 6 months. They asked educators to describe stories they had heard from limited-resource individuals regarding how they maintained food security. Questions included common ways, surprising ways, illegal ways, and ways people obtained food that appeared “unsafe.” They also asked educators if and how food was “set aside” for particular household members.

The interviews revealed a number of strategies and practices used to maintain food security, including relying on community resources for food, informal support systems, increasing financial resources, lowering food costs by planning food shopping, managing food supplies, and regulating eating patterns. Specific practices included:

Relying on Community Resources for Food

  • Using public food assistance (WIC, food stamps, etc.), community programs (food pantries), and help from private individuals (soup kitchens in people’s homes)
  • Going to restaurants and stores for free food (happy hours, free samples in stores, bakeries)
Using Informal Support Systems
  • Trading forms of public assistance; selling surplus food (e.g., a turkey that cannot be stored), WIC formula, free food obtained from an employer or friend working in a store or fast food establishment; or using stolen meat to buy other food
  • Asking friends or relatives for food or money; eating at others’ homes
Increasing Financial Resources
  • Augmenting income by begging, earning unreported income, engaging in illegal activities, providing foster care, gambling, or pawning or selling possessions
  • Decreasing expenses by using multiple food pantries; hunting (e.g., deer, squirrels, turkeys, ducks); fishing (safe and unsafe waters, legally and illegally); collecting discarded food from dumpsters; butchering animals; gardening
  • Managing resources by budgeting; establishing store credit; planning payment of bills
  • Moving to be closer to public assistance or better employment opportunities
  • Moving to an abandoned building, living with others, or moving to less expensive housing
  • Using cash assistance programs (TANF, General Assistance, SSI) to increase income
  • Using subsidy programs to decrease expenses, for example, subsidized housing
Lowering Food Costs by Utilizing Shopping Plans
  • Buying food from discount stores, street vendors, private individuals (including expired or stolen food), or questionable stores (stores that carry only dented cans, meat trucks)
  • Shoplifting or switching price tags on foods
  • Shopping for bulk foods, dented cans, expired food, inexpensive foods like Ramen noodles, nearly expired foods, and coupon and sale items
Managing Food Supply
  • Removing slime from lunch meat, mold from cheese, mold and/or insects from grains, and spoiled parts from fruits and vegetables; diluting foods (stews, casseroles, soups, infant formula, juices, and milk)
  • Rationing food by locking up or hiding, labeling with names, regulating amount eaten
  • Preserving food by canning or freezing/refreezing
  • Conserving by taking leftovers home from soup kitchens, senior dining sites, nutrition education sites, church
Regulating Eating Patterns
  • Going without food (“go hungry,” “fast,” “starve”); limiting amounts or helpings; limiting number of eating occasions (skip meals, live off meals at soup kitchens, schools); depriving self of food (parent for child, young women for men, woman for spouse, men for women, teens eating only at school to save food at home for younger children)
  • Overeating when food is available (e.g., shelter residents overeating before leaving the shelter)
  • Eating from questionable food sources, such as: canned dog food instead of meat; nonfood items (paper); expired food; leftovers; food received from pantries; rancid soy flour
  • Eating food left behind on other people’s plates, road kill, and free samples
  • Cycling monthly eating patterns, for instance, eating fresh food first and canned and packaged goods later; limiting variety at the end of the month

Many practices identified were quite ordinary; others were alarming. Keenan et al. suggest that future work confirm their list of practices and seek more examples and insights from limited-resource audiences to learn how they maintain food security. They also suggest future work to determine the prevalence of various practices that are indicative of food insecurity, and to identify practices unique to at-risk populations. Finally, unsafe practices such as rinsing the slime off meat and eating foods from dented cans need to be assessed for their food safety risk relative to each other and to the risks of food insecurity and hunger.