Play Video

Cash assistance for groceries offers families more flexibility

"Research consistently demonstrates that food insecurity emerges not from families' shortcomings but deeply rooted societal issues," says Simon Fern. We need to continue to boost what we know works—direct and unconditional cash transfers to the most impacted communities." (Credit: Getty Images)

During the pandemic, cash assistance provided low-income mothers with greater flexibility to feed their families than food distributions, researchers report.

For the new study, the researchers interviewed 45 Black low-income mothers of young children in an underserved Houston neighborhood from April 2020 to June 2021, comparing two aid programs—Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) cash assistance and in-kind food distributions.

They found that food distributions actually presented new challenges for families already shouldering heavy burdens. Mothers in need of food preferred cash assistance as it allowed them more flexibility in getting what they needed to feed their families.

Respondents mentioned a variety of reasons that food distributions were less desirable. One of the common ones mothers cited were long lines waiting for food, made worse when temperatures reached 100 degrees or higher. Respondents also said that food banks didn’t always have desirable food options and were difficult to access without a car.

As a result, traveling to and from distributions resulted in wasted transportation funds and/or time off work to procure food their families didn’t like or couldn’t eat.

In contrast, P-EBT funds allowed mothers to tailor their food choices to their specific households, while giving them flexibility with when and where they shopped. The researchers note that mothers expressed enthusiasm for the simple practicality of this system. Unlike food distributions, no mothers reported accessibility issues with the P-EBT program.

“Families know their own needs best. We need to recognize and trust their expertise instead of introducing additional tasks and complications,” says Simon Fern, a sociology doctoral student at Rice University and co-lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Research consistently demonstrates that food insecurity emerges not from families’ shortcomings but deeply rooted societal issues. We need to continue to boost what we know works—direct and unconditional cash transfers to the most impacted communities.”

The researchers say they hope this study demonstrates how food assistance interventions, especially in emergency food situations such as pandemics or natural disasters, can be more successful and equitable by considering the needs and preferences of individuals using the programs.

“The work that food banks like our excellent Houston Food Bank do is crucial for communities,” says co-lead author Rachel Kimbro, chair in social sciences.

“However, during emergency situations, in addition to food distributions, low-income families may prefer to receive direct cash benefits to their existing SNAP or to EBT cards. It’s important to listen to the voices of those who are most vulnerable to and most impacted by these events.”

Additional coauthors are from North Carolina State University and Colorado College.

Source: Rice University