University of Wisconsin–Madison
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The Cost of Free Assistance: Studying Nonuse of Food Assistance in San Francisco

Nongovernmental free food assistance is available to many low-income Americans through food pantries, yet many do not avail themselves of this assistance. As the monetary value of such assistance can be over $2,000 per year, nonuse poses a puzzle from an economic standpoint. This study uses original data collected through in-depth interviews with 63 low-income San Franciscans who did not use free food assistance from food pantries. The data paint a nuanced picture of the reasons low-income people do not obtain assistance from local food pantries. The study explores respondents’ need for, knowledge of, access to, and acceptance of assistance. We find that overall, sample members concluded that the benefit of free food assistance did not justify the perceived effort and psychological costs involved. These costs included moral objections to taking food from others, perceptions of low-quality food, hassles and ‘drama,’ racial tensions, and the emotional toll of accepting assistance.


Food & Nutrition, Food Assistance