How to Feed the Hungry: Overcoming Psychosocial Barriers
Date published: Feb. 22, 2017
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.
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
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.