Historically, food banks have done more good than harm. For example, having access to nutritious foods gives poor people hope and helps them decide whether they want to stay poor, even when there are solutions that won’t cost much, such as a job. Today, however, food bank programs have run into trouble, in part because a growing number of people entering the SNAP system are able to find work without relying on government assistance. Our research shows that food bank services can have unintended consequences for families still struggling to get by.
As we said in our previous article, food banks have taken on new significance in recent years, as the availability of jobs in the U.S. has declined as the economy has been boosted by rising employment in low-wage industries such as retail, food service, home services, and hospitality. At the same time, lower-income workers have shifted to part-time or temporary jobs without benefits or paid sick leave. This requires a bigger food budget to get by, and we have found that food banks are now having to provide the same kinds of food that people used to be able to buy with food stamps. While grocery stores now fill a sizeable portion of the food need, the availability of “mid-range” foods—such as burgers, chicken, and rice—on shelves at food pantries doesn’t mean that many less-fortunate families have enough food to eat.
In other words, food banks are trying to help families get by on food like what most poor Americans can buy at the grocery store with food stamps. If this is the model, it isn’t sustainable. To be effective, food banks should be able to provide food to people who need it but are unwilling to spend money on it. One place to start would be to find ways to increase the availability of nutritious foods in general, particularly among those populations who need them most. Food banks can encourage food makers to alter products so that more nutritious choices are available, but food manufacturers also have a responsibility to include healthier items on shelves, and to meet nutrition goals for products.
This is another difficulty. It is tough to find a way to assess just how “healthy” a particular food product is because of all the varied categories under which different products can be considered to be healthy. Are eggs the same as oatmeal? Are dairy products of the same quality? Foods also have chemical constituents that could be helping or hurting a food product’s nutritional quality. The challenge isn’t just to keep track of many classes of foods, but to accurately define certain classes as “healthy” or “unhealthy” based on their nutritional quality. As the world has become more complex, so have the rules surrounding food labeling, making it difficult to monitor whether food-stamp recipients are getting the healthiest food, whether at food banks or elsewhere. While Congress is considering a bill to simplify and consolidate nutritional labeling, we need stronger protections in place to ensure that recipients are getting enough nutritious food.
Food banks are part of the solution to poverty in the U.S., but their work must be better coordinated with other efforts to get nutritious food into the hands of families who need it most. Rather than offering just enough nutritious food to get by, food banks can help people find healthier and more affordable options. Reducing the pressure on food banks to fill in the gaps as people lose benefits without leading to significant health costs would make for a healthier and more hopeful future for low-income families.