Food Assistance in East Alabama: Issues of Access and Need

Year: 1999

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Molnar, Joseph J., Patricia A. Duffy, L. Conner Bailey, LaToya Claxton, and Ginger Grayson Hallmark

Institution: Auburn University

Project Contact:
Patricia A. Duffy
Department of Agricultural Economics
and Rural Sociology
Auburn University, AL 36849


Food banks are a relatively recent private, nonprofit response to changes in the welfare system and the growing recognition that hunger is a real and relatively widespread problem. The growing reliance on private food assistance makes it increasingly important that information be gathered on how private food banks operate and on the needs of the client and potential client base for these institutions.

This study focuses on the East Alabama Food Bank (EAFB), which is part of the Second Harvest system of food banks. It serves several counties in east central Alabama and covers a mix of rural and urban communities. Through probability-in-proportion-to-size methods, Molnar et al. randomly selected six rural and six urban member agencies of the EAFB. They focused specifically on food pantries that distribute food for home preparation and consumption. They developed a case study of these agencies through site visits and interviews with directors.

The authors also conducted face-to-face interviews of a sample of over 200 low-income community residents, including food bank users and nonusers. They collected data on demographic characteristics, economic characteristics, reasons for their need for food assistance, level of “food insecurity,” transportation needs and availability, history of food pantry use, perceived obstacles to food pantry use, and use of government programs such as food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Molnar et al. examined their survey results for differences in urban and rural responses. A large portion of the total sample had children under 18 years old living at home. Many respondents were single mothers. A sizable subgroup of rural pantry users were elderly people. The majority of respondents had incomes less than $15,000 per year, with rural residents somewhat more likely to be in the lowest income brackets.

Food pantry users reported a high level of satisfaction with the services received. Transportation to the pantry site was a problem at least sometimes for a quarter of pantry users both in rural and urban locations. The biggest obstacle for nonusers appeared to be lack of knowledge. A central finding of the study is the high degree of variability in the operation of the different food pantries within the EAFB system.