Families value their visits to food banks at about $1,000 a year, adding up to as much as $28 billion in help for people across the country, researchers at Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture found in a recently released study of northern Colorado food bank utilization.
Economists relied on a unique data set from the Food Bank for Larimer County to calculate first-of-kind estimates of the value people place on receiving food from such facilities. The findings quantify the worth of dry goods, produce and meat provided to clients for free—a useful metric for food pantry managers to demonstrate how their facilities are crucial to alleviating growing food insecurity.
The study, titled “What is free food worth? A nonmarket valuation approach to estimating the welfare effects of food pantry services,” was published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics in November 2022. The results promise to help persuade both policymakers and donors that Food Bank for Larimer County facilities are worth their volunteer time and monetary allocations, said Amy Pezzani, the organization’s chief executive officer.
“It’s nice to have this published—there is a very, very large impact to families that are able to access this food,” Pezzani said of the study. “I think it is sort of an untold story.”
It’s also timely.
Demand at the Loveland-based nonprofit’s two food pantries jumped 40% between January and October 2022 to 11,532 unduplicated individuals. The organization provided such clients between 75% and 95% of their monthly food, according to listening sessions Pezzani conducted last summer.
This number rose markedly in recent years: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, families told Pezzani that they received approximately one third of their monthly food from a Food Bank for Larimer County pantry.
U.S. food banks also reported record demand as inflation hit its highest level in four decades and stimulus checks and other federal pandemic aid expired. One in six Americans relied on charitable food assistance in 2021 to put meals on the table, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.
Some of these numbers were collected before increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits ended, depending on where participants live. Expanded Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credits offered by the federal government also expired at the end of 2021.
It has been historically difficult for economists to measure the value of food assistance provided at food pantries because products are offered without charge. To overcome this barrier, researchers asked what those who visit such facilities would be willing to give up to obtain food, said study co-author David Just, PhD, a business professor at Cornell University.
“We don’t see how much money they would be willing to give up,” he added. “We do see how much effort they put into getting there—it costs a certain amount of money to travel.”
Using data collected by the Food Bank for Larimer County from 10% of county residents who visited its Fort Collins and Loveland locations between 2005 and 2017, researchers calculated such “willingness to pay” for food by considering the distance, duration and frequency of clients’ trips. (This method of calculating the value people place on an activity has also been used elsewhere to measure visits to national parks.)
The data set included millions of pantry visits by about 45,000 racially and ethnically diverse households that reported lower incomes than the county overall. Just said the “extremely unique data set,” which isn’t kept by many food bank facilities, was also valuable to scholars because of the absence of many competing pantries in the region.
“The Food Bank for Larimer County had robust data, but they also had a setting that was particularly conducive to the study,” Anne Byrne, PhD, a research agricultural economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, wrote in an email. “At the time, they were distributing mainly through two big food share locations that were frequently open and allowed households to visit repeatedly.”
These factors allowed researchers to say they were “actually observing demand,” she added, by being able to see how many visits clients made per month. Byrne said that the finding she emphasizes most is that a single trip to a food pantry is worth, on average, between $40 and $60 to a client household.
This dollar amount will fluctuate depending on where a pantry is located and the demographics of its users, Just said.
The study highlights the critical role food pantries play in nationwide efforts to help a growing number of people who do not have adequate access to the food they need, said Craig Gundersen, PhD, a professor of economics at Baylor University who specializes in food insecurity and evaluation of food assistance programs.
“Whenever food prices rise, there is an increase in food insecurity,” said Gundersen, who didn’t participate in the study. “Charitable contributions haven’t been increasing during this time period when arguably the need is greater than it was during COVID.”
In his own research, Gundersen said he found that an average charitable food assistance recipient obtained 200 meals a year from a pantry. The new study using Larimer County data puts a dollar figure on such meals and gives food banks a new way to talk about the impact of their services, he added.
“The way I would say it is ‘look, we are the second most important source of meals for people in our community after SNAP,’” Gundersen said. This insight is crucial for 35% of U.S. households who are ineligible for SNAP—due to their immigration status, living situation or income, for example—and rely on food banks for help.
Given that researchers used data that predates the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornell University’s Just said the study’s results likely understate the value families place on obtaining food from pantries today.
“Food prices rise with inflation,” he added. “We should think that these numbers are outdated.”