The Cost of Free Assistance: Studying Non-Use of Food Assistance in San Francisco

Year: 2012

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

Investigator: Wimer, Christopher, Rachel Wright, and Kelley Fong

Institution: Columbia University

Project Contact:
Christopher Wimer
Columbia University
1255 Amsterdam Avenue, Room 735
New York, NY 10025
Phone: 212-854-0245


In addition to government food assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), nonprofit food assistance forms a critical part of the social safety net by distributing food directly to people experiencing, or at risk of, food insecurity. This nonprofit assistance includes local food pantries, typically supplied by central warehouses known as food banks, which distribute groceries at churches, community centers, and other neighborhood sites. Although increasing numbers of people are turning to food pantries for assistance, many low-income people do not use these services. This poses something of a puzzle from a purely utilitarian standpoint, as the value of this free food assistance can be $2,000 a year or more.

This paper utilizes qualitative interview data from a sample of low-income non-users of food pantries in San Francisco, CA, to better understand why some low-income households do not utilize free food assistance that is available in their communities. The sample consists of 63 interviews with primarily low-income individuals residing in San Francisco. The study looked at both general non-users throughout the city and also non-users with direct access to a pantry operating within their community. The study utilized 23 interviews with low-income, primarily unemployed, San Franciscans from the general community; 19 interviews with residents of a low-income housing project with a pantry operating at its community center; and 22 interviews with people recruited from an elementary school that ran a pantry for parents and caregivers of children in the school.

According to the study’s theoretical model, reasons for low-income people not availing themselves of free food assistance (“non-assistance”) can be organized in a framework of need, knowledge, access, and acceptance. This study found that non-assistance was primarily a function of the latter two factors: perceived barriers to obtaining assistance, and outright rejection of assistance. In some cases, the boundaries between these latter two categories became blurred, as perceived barriers to use fed into respondents’ cultural distaste for the possibility of accepting assistance.

Need: Though 12 respondents expressed that they did not “need” free food assistance, both within this subsample and across the larger sample, the study found that material hardships were quite rampant. These material hardships, and the survival strategies employed by respondents to avoid or deal with them, suggest that all but a small minority of the sample could objectively benefit from free food assistance. Many sample members instead relied on government supports or private transfers from social networks to help mitigate need.

Knowledge: Approximately two-fifths of the sample reported not knowing about a specific pantry and its hours of operation in their community, and this was especially true in the community sample spread out across the city. This lack of knowledge was fairly shallow, however, as almost all respondents reported that they knew of available pantries in the abstract and could find information on its operations if they needed to. This suggests that avoidance of pantries was less a result of lack of knowledge than that lack of knowledge was a byproduct of decisions not to use a pantry in the first place.

Access: One-third of the sample reported that it would be physically or logistically difficult for them to get assistance from a pantry. The most common reasons here were that the hours of a specific pantry were inconvenient and that various pantries respondents knew of were only open one day a week during a short window. Physical disabilities and ailments also sometimes played a role.

Acceptance: The most common and strongest set of reasons for non-utilization involved outright rejection of assistance. Motivations for choosing non-use generally fit within one of five dominant themes: (1) a moral economy of need (that is, taking food would mean less food available for those who need it more); (2) quality (that is, perceptions that food would be expired or otherwise not fit for consumption); (3) hassle associated with long lines, drama, and disorganization (including worries about physical safety and fights/shoving within pantry lines); (4) racial dynamics (that is, intergroup hostility and perceptions that “outsiders” were taking advantage of community resources); and (5) the emotional toll accepting help would entail.