The Evolution, Cost, and Operation of the Private Food Assistance Network

Year: 1999

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Daponte, Beth Osborne, and Shannon Bade

Institution: University of Pittsburgh

Project Contact:
Beth Osborne Daponte, Ph.D.
University Center for Social and Urban Research
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260


In the past 20 years, delivery of assistance to the poor has drastically changed. While the availability of cash assistance has decreased, the availability of food assistance has widened. The most substantial change in assistance available to the needy may be the emergence of food pantries as a source of free food to prepare at home. According to research conducted by Second Harvest, the national network of food banks, approximately 19 million individuals in the United States received an estimated 960.5 million pounds of food from food pantries in 1997. Still, many policymakers, academics, and participants in the private food assistance network know little about this network. This study fills the knowledge gap on the private food assistance network.

Researchers Daponte and Bade ask three basic questions about the private food assistance network: How did it evolve? How much does it cost? How does it operate? Their paper provides a detailed examination of domestic food policy since the 1930’s. They show how agricultural and welfare policies contributed to developing a supply of free food for the needy, and how private efforts, such as the formation of Second Harvest and its member food banks, facilitated the creation of a private food assistance network to distribute this food through about 34,000 food pantries. Their research also highlights policy changes in the Food Stamp Program that, they argue, contributed to the tremendous demand for free food in the early 1980’s.

Daponte and Bade used 1997 data from Second Harvest to estimate private food assistance network costs. Including the cost of food, the value of volunteer labor hours, and other food pantry operating expenses, they estimate total network costs at approximately $2.3 billion, or about one-twelfth the size of the Food Stamp Program.

Daponte and Bade address the operation of the private food assistance network through case studies of two metropolitan food banks. Their examination of the processes and policies surrounding the Connecticut Food Bank and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank highlights the heterogeneous nature of the private food assistance network. Although these two food banks operate in areas with approximately the same number of people living in households with incomes below the poverty level, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank distributes four times as much food as the Connecticut Food Bank. The authors assert that historical forces, personnel characteristics, and the political environments in these communities influence the amount of food their private food assistance networks can distribute to needy households.

The authors conclude with recommendations for making the public food safety net more effective, noting the value of private food assistance as a supplement to the current public food assistance system.