With food prices soaring, over 50 million Americans rely on free distributions from food banks to help feed their families. But determining the economic value of those contributions has been challenging.

Now, new research by USDA and Cornell University estimates that the value of food pantry donations is worth up to $1,000 annually to participating families and between $19 and $28 billion nationwide. The totals underscore food bank systems’ important role in addressing food insecurity, a role that has grown during the pandemic and recent bouts of inflation, said David R. Just, the Susan Eckert Lynch Professor in Science and Business in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, part of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Food pantries make a huge difference to the households they serve, for many representing a substantial portion of their income,” Just said. “This is important information for policymakers considering support for the national or local food banking system, like tax breaks for food donation, direct program support from USDA or other efforts.” 

Just is the co-author of “What is Free Food Worth? A Nonmarket Valuation Approach to Estimating the Welfare Effects of Food Pantry Services,” published recently in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. The lead author is Anne Byrne, a research agricultural economist at USDA’s Economic Research Service.

“Private food assistance, especially food banking, has grown in recent decades,” Byrne said. “These organizations have a unique position within the food system and a specific role in food access because they offer quick relief in the form of free groceries to a wide variety of people, typically with minimal administrative hurdles.”

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The scholars analyzed 13 years of data (2005-17) from a northern Colorado food bank that in 2017 served 10% of Larimer County residents at locations in Fort Collins and Loveland, or about 45,000 households. Extrapolated nationally — based on 389 million visits reported by Feeding America’s 2014 Hunger in America Study — the first-of-their-kind estimates confirm that “food bank services collectively represent a sizeable share of the food landscape,” the researchers wrote.

Their estimated value is more than double the sales by farmers markets in 2020, and a significant fraction of federal food stamp (SNAP) benefits that year, which were worth $74.2 billion, according to the research.

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