Individuals who pawn family valuables to make ends meet or must choose to pay one bill over another are at greater risk of food insecurity, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois.
The researchers observed data gathered from people who visit food pantries and found that these financial coping strategies can help identify individuals who are very food insecure or at risk for becoming food insecure.
“It’s not just about income,” said U of I economist Dr. Craig Gundersen, who coauthored the study. “In order to determine whether or not people are food insecure, we’ve been asking if they are uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food because they had insufficient money or other resources. Now we’re seeing that it’s more complicated than that.”
The study involved surveying a random sample of particularly vulnerable people — those visiting food pantries — through the Hunger in America 2014 survey data set. Gundersen said this population is often overlooked in studies based on nationally representative surveys. One reason is that some people who go to food pantries may be marginally housed or homeless, so other surveys would have missed them.
“Families who can’t pay their bills may resort to any number of coping strategies, such as getting help from family and friends, pawning personal property, purchasing the cheapest foods possible, using expired foods and diluting foods,” says Gundersen.
“Whenever we looked at the number of coping strategies that were being used, we saw that they were also more likely to be food insecure. If mothers are watering down their infant’s formula, that’s a clear sign that they’re likely to be food insecure.”
He said you may not be able to ask someone about their food insecurity status, but you can ask them if they are juggling bills.
One way people who are food insecure can get help is through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). Gundersen is a strong supporter of the program, saying that research has proven its profound impact on reducing food insecurity.
“SNAP dollars free up money to pay other bills, such as medical or utility bills,” Gundersen said. “Many of these families just need a little bit of help financially to be able to keep up with their bills.”
He adds that many people who visit food pantries are also SNAP recipients.
“SNAP is fantastic, but for a lot of households, it’s just not enough to get them through the entire month. Food pantries help fill that gap. Another group of people going to food pantries is those who are not eligible for SNAP. Their incomes are just a little too high, so the only places they can turn to are food pantries,” he said.
People who visit food pantries are one of the highest populations at risk in the United States.
“The food insecurity rates we find are 80 percent — substantially higher than for the U.S. as a whole, which is about 15 percent. We’re looking at those people who are most in danger of food insecurity. And inability to pay bills is a key determinant.”