Spotlight Exclusives

Food Pantries: More than Just Food

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Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity will be running a series of commentaries in the summer of 2012 on the fight to end childhood hunger in America.

This commentary is the sixth installment in the series, which is entitled “Ending Childhood Hunger in America.”

A mother with four dependents came to a Catholic Charities food pantry to help feed her family until her next paycheck. Pantry staff asked if she was receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and learned that she was not. After some additional questions, the agency learned the family had been moving from motel to motel, paying high monthly, and even weekly, rates.

Unfortunately, this story is typical for those who support families and children, and who have trouble meeting the most basic of needsproviding food. Sending these families home with food is a critical emergency service, but it is not enough. To make a real dent in child hunger, food pantries must also help these families connect to other programs, and then fill the remaining gaps.

Pantries that help distribute food to those in need provide a critical service, but they can do so much more. Coming to a food pantry can provide an opportunity for families to discuss why the need for food exists, raise concerns of the larger household, and receive information on comprehensive public benefits and referrals to other services.

That۪s the approach we take at Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), because it reflects the needs of the people we serve. Our network has long been active in food programs targeting families who are food insecure. In 2010, of the over ten million individuals served, seven million received assistance for food and Catholic Charities served 1,326,247 children through food programs. This number is even higher if you consider the children who were served by parents who came to pick up food for their families.

In the case of the family mentioned above, the local Catholic Charities agency was able to assist them in applying for SNAP benefits. The family was then able to free up income to put towards more permanent housing. The agency also helped the family save for a security deposit, locate affordable housing options, and even make the first month۪s rent. All of these services began with a mother looking for food to feed her children.

Other organizations can follow this model, but only if they are aware of the full range of programs available to low-income families and children. To build this capacity, CCUSA has been working with the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to understand the variety of programs offered and how to access them. This work has already expanded our SNAP outreach and summer nutrition efforts.

The Catholic Charities network now operates FNS۪ Summer Food Service Program in over 211 sites. Recently, this work has developed into a larger partnership with several agencies becoming part of their state۪s SNAP outreach plan. Local agencies are now better able to educate parents about SNAP and to assist families with applications and follow-up. 

Even over a short period of time, the success of this approach is evident. In California, for example, ten agencies have come together as part of a statewide network spanning over 20 counties to further the California Department of Public Health۪s SNAP outreach efforts. This effort has generated an estimated 111,000 new SNAP applications since 2009, many for families with children.  

Pantries must play a role in educating families about existing programs, but they can۪t stop there. They need to begin to fill the gaps left by federal programs. 
One such gap is the lack of food distribution capacity in rural communities. Almost 15 percent of rural households are food insecure, compared to 12.6 percent of suburban households. In 20 percent of rural counties families live more than ten miles from a supermarket or supercenter, and rural residents also pay an average of four percent more at supermarkets than suburban Americans. 

Fortunately, this is an area where private partnerships can make a real difference. With the help of a grant from the Walmart Foundation, CCUSA has identified 12 agencies already running significant food distribution programs and has helped them bring these services to underserved rural communities. 

These are just two examples of ways that food pantries can do more than provide food, and there are many others. The key is to think soberly about the needs of hungry children and families, and creatively about how to partner with others to make a difference. 

Food insecurity is a problem for far too many children and families in this country. That۪s why we need every stakeholder to do what they can to make a difference. For food pantries, that means more than providing food. It means recognizing their role as part of a broader support system. Working together and with others, food pantries can help families receive the services they need and get back on their feet. 

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Jane Stenson is the senior director of poverty reduction strategies at Catholic Charities USA.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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