Addressing Food Insecurity: Nutrient and Social Network Analysis of Urban Church Food Pantries

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Noerper, Tracy
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Middle Tennessee State University
Food insecurity, defined as having limited or uncertain access to adequate and safe food, is a chronic problem for many Americans. Individuals who are food insecure can have poorer nutrient intakes which could lead to or exacerbate chronic disease. Food pantries are part of a multi-pronged approach to help food insecure households access emergency foods and maintain normal and healthy eating patterns. Existing studies suggest that food pantry items are typically deficient in vitamins A and C, calcium and possibly other nutrients such as fiber, vitamin D and potassium. The majority of food pantries in existence today are administered by churches. The purpose of this research is to explore the social networks of urban church food pantries, evaluate church pantry demographics and analyze the nutrient content of pantry food packages. Results of the social network analysis found that medium-sized churches with membership between 100 and 299 had the greatest number of social network ties between church pantries and the zip codes they serve. Demographic results showed that the average church had approximately 400 members with an average age of 48 years old. Of the 96 churches in the sample, 17 (20.24%) were affiliated with the Methodist denomination. Caucasian (white) was the primary race in 62% of church memberships. Forty-six churches indicated they currently had an on-site food pantry. Nutritional analysis of 18 churches providing pre-made food bags revealed that the dairy and fruit food groups were lacking, and met minimum dietary recommendations for less than 2 and 3 days, respectively. Calcium, vitamins A and C were also found in low levels. Protein and total grain food group servings were found to each meet minimum dietary recommendations for at least 10 days. The amounts of sodium and added sugars found in pantry bag foods were considerable and would meet maximum daily limits for 10 and 15 days, respectively. Future research of church food pantries should focus on reducing barriers that limit the distribution of fruit and dairy food groups. Research should further investigate the social networks of church pantries to ensure that the most vulnerable urban populations are not being underserved.