Unreliable and Difficult-to-Access Food for Those in Need: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Urban Food Pantries


For individuals who are food insecure, food pantries can be a vital resource to improve access to adequate food. Access to adequate food may be conceptualized within five dimensions: availability (item variety), accessibility (e.g., hours of operation), accommodation (e.g., cultural sensitivity), affordability (costs, monetary or otherwise), and acceptability (e.g., as related to quality). This study examined the five dimensions of access in a convenience sample of 50 food pantries in the Bronx, NY. The design was cross-sectional. Qualitative data included researcher observations and field notes from unstructured interviews with pantry workers. Quantitative data included frequencies for aspects of food access, organized by the five access dimensions. Inductive analysis of quantitative and qualitative data revealed three main inter-related findings: (1) Pantries were not reliably open: only 50% of pantries were open during hours listed in an online directory (several had had prolonged or indefinite closures); (2) Even when pantries were open, all five access dimensions showed deficiencies (e.g., limited inventory, few hours, pre-selected handouts without consideration of preferences, opportunity costs, and inferior-quality items); (3) Open pantries frequently had insufficient food supply to meet client demand. To deal with mismatch between supply and demand, pantries developed rules for food provision. Rules could break down in cases of pantries receiving food deliveries, leading to workarounds, and in cases of compelling client need, leading to exceptions. Adherence to rules, versus implementation of workarounds and/or exceptions, was worker- and situation-dependent and, thus, unpredictable. Overall, pantry food provision was unreliable. Future research should explore clients’ perception of pantry access considering multiple access dimensions. Future research should also investigate drivers of mismatched supply and demand to create more predictable, reliable, and adequate food provision.

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The authors would like to thank Aimee Eden, PhD, for reviewing an early draft of this manuscript and providing helpful feedback.


SCL is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under award K23HD079606. The content of this manuscript is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. Student stipends through the Albert Einstein College of Medicine supported data collection. For data collection and management, the study used REDCap electronic data capture tools hosted through the Harold and Muriel Block Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Einstein and Montefiore under grant UL1 TR001073.

Author information




SCL conceived the study, designed the data collection tool and protocol, oversaw primary data collection, performed analyses, outlined the introduction and discussion sections, and drafted methods and results sections, including tables and figures. ZAG led the literature review, conducted primary data collection, contributed to qualitative data analysis, and assisted with the writing of introduction and discussion sections. HJF conducted primary data collection. ADB contributed to qualitative data analysis. EBR contributed to qualitative data analysis and manuscript writing. CBS oversaw quantitative data analysis. ARM created the map and assisted with geographic considerations. KCS provided guidance on study planning, and contributed to the literature review, data analysis, and writing. All authors helped revise the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sean C. Lucan.

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None of the other authors have any disclosures.

Ethical Approval

This study was considered exempt under federal regulations 45 CFR 46.101 (b) (2,4) and Einstein IRB policy.



See Figs. 2 and 3.

Fig. 2

Food pantry data-collection tool

Fig. 3

Montage of images from Bronx food pantries, 2014. Top row: signs announcing pantry closures. Bottom row: guest bill of rights, eligibility/access criteria, and provider bill of rights

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Ginsburg, Z.A., Bryan, A.D., Rubinstein, E.B. et al. Unreliable and Difficult-to-Access Food for Those in Need: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Urban Food Pantries. J Community Health 44, 16–31 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-018-0549-2

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  • Urban
  • Food environment
  • Community nutrition
  • Food pantries
  • Food insecurity