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Feeding the Hungry

How to Feed the Hungry: Overcoming Psychosocial Barriers


food bankDate published: Feb. 22, 2017

Community Outreach

Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephanie Swales, along with Associate Professor of Economics Tammy Leonard, Assistant Professor of Mathematics David Andrews and Assistant Professor of Human Sciences Carla Pezzia, is part of the Community Assistance Research (CARe) project, which UD facilitates along with the University of Texas Southwestern and the University of Texas at Dallas. CARe finds community agencies and services with which there would be a mutual benefit to CARe coming in and conducting research.

The Research

Food banks exist to disseminate food to those in our communities who otherwise wouldn’t have enough. However, many of the people who could be the recipients of this food choose not to accept it. Swales, her psychologist colleague Christy Tucker, Ph.D., and UD psychology graduate student Mary Nuxoll, MPsy ’17, worked with Crossroads Community Services (CCS), the largest distributor for North Texas Food Bank, to try to discover some of the main reasons hungry people refuse the nourishment that would sustain them.

Swales, Tucker and Nuxoll interviewed CCS clients seeking to learn the psychosocial obstacles they face in receiving food assistance. Other studies being conducted by CARe research teams are establishing the external factors or practical considerations that get in the way of people’s ability to procure nourishment from food banks, including transportation and the weather. However, preliminary findings indicate two primary psychosocial barriers to food-insecure people taking advantage of these services to get the food they need.                            

The Social Network

Probably the main barrier to people seeking food assistance is that they believe they would be shamed or looked down upon by their families or communities. In social networks where receiving this type of assistance is stigmatized, it is sometimes extremely hard for people to make themselves go to food banks, no matter how badly they need the food.

In these types of communities, people in need fear accusations of laziness and of having no pride. They might be told they should just get a second job, whether this is feasible or not — anything but accept charity. They are embarrassed at not being able to provide for themselves and their families. Sometimes, even if they ultimately opt to go to a food bank, they will travel to one a great distance from their own neighborhood to ensure they won’t be seen by anyone they know.

A Sense of Being Undeserving

The other primary psychological barrier to people taking advantage of food banks is that they don’t feel deserving of the food — or they feel others are more deserving. This seems especially true of those without children. They seem to perpetually ask themselves, “What right do I have to this food when there are hungry kids?”

This feeling of being undeserving leads, naturally, to people not taking care of themselves. They might still go to the food bank, but they’ll wait until the last possible moment, when all of the best food has been taken, and all that’s left is a few packs of Ramen. Then, they can rationalize it. Often, it’s a question of whether they feel they have suffered enough to justify obtaining the food.

In the meantime, of course, they don’t eat well. Often, anxiety and depression coexist with the food insecurity.  

Social networks can affect this psychological barrier, too, and the effect can be positive if the social network in question is one that does not perpetuate stereotypes, but rather supports a person doing what he or she needs to do in order to survive. In one case, a woman’s sister-in-law drove her to the food bank, insisting that the food was both needed and deserved.

Swales and her fellow researchers are still processing the research, with the help of Genevieve Frank, BA ’19, and John McDonald, BA ’17, who are assisting with transcribing the interviews, and Christopher May, MPsy ’22, who is assisting with interpreting them. However, they have found, preliminarily of course, that social networks play the greatest role in whether or not people are willing to seek the food assistance they need. It largely comes down to whether a community promotes or disrupts stereotypes.

Making a Difference

The hope is that this and other research done through CARe could make a difference both on a local level and in a more widespread way through publication in an academic journal. Once the research has been published, other researchers and policymakers involved with food insecurity nationwide may then read the paper and use the results in a way that advances research and helps food-insecure individuals.

At the local level, CCS will look at ways in which they can use the results to help their clients. For instance, they might form a peer mentoring program in which current or former clients of the food bank meet with new clients to share their insights and supportive attitudes surrounding getting needed food assistance.

Discover more about CARe.