Food insecurity is a persistent social problem affecting one out of eight households in the United States (USDA, 2016). Households on public assistance often turn to informal food support, such as food pantries, meals on wheels, and soup kitchens, to cushion their consumption needs. Despite its important role in addressing food insecurity among low-income households, research examining determinants of informal food support use remains scarce. Guided by the Andersen’s Health Service Use Model, this study aims to identify the predisposing, enabling, and need factors of informal food support use among low-income households in the U.S.
Data were drawn from the 2016 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement. We included 8,893 adults who were at least 18 years old and reported a household income of less than 150% of the federal poverty level (FPL). Logistic regression was conducted to examine the associations between predisposing, enabling, and need factors, and use of four types of informal food support, including community food delivery, eating meals at a community program, community emergency food support, and eating meals at a soup kitchen or shelter. Results were weighted on account of complex survey design to represent the low-income U.S. population.
Predisposing factors of informal food support use include education and race. Non-Hispanic blacks were more likely to obtain community food delivery and meals at a soup kitchen or shelter than non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics were least likely to use those two types of support compared to other racial groups. Respondents with high school education and above were less likely to use community emergency food support and eating meals at a soup kitchen or shelter. Enabling factors include employment status, food stamp receipt, and household income. Respondents categorized as looking for work were more likely to obtain meals from a community program, a soup kitchen or shelter. They were also likely to use community emergency food support compared to individuals working or not in labor force. Food stamp recipients were more likely to eat at a soup kitchen or shelter than non-recipients. Participants with household income of 100-124% FPL were least likely to obtain meals from a community program compared to any other income group. For need factors, severity of food insecurity was positively associated with utilization of all four types of informal food support.
Conclusions and Implications
This study reports several important findings that extend the understanding of informal food support use among low-income adults. The study highlights the need to enhance cultural adaptation of informal food support, especially, for Hispanics. Moreover, the underutilization of informal food support among low-income people working full-time points to the need to increase program flexibility by addressing potential schedule conflicts for this population. In addition, the underutilization of food support among non SNAP recipients, may be explained by the lack of information on availability of informal food support. Findings suggest several implications for practice and policies to improve the reach of informal food support among low-income populations.