Do people scam food banks just to get food?

Scamming food banks

Folks, we get letters. So we’re going to respond to all of them right now.

Whenever we post a story about food banks, people write in wondering what controls there are to keep people from scamming food banks. They always include the following:

  • “They’re scamming food banks if they have a car, cell phone, and cigarettes.”
  • “I was taught not to accept charity.”
  • “I work hard, my parents worked hard, and everybody I know works hard.”
  • “I’ve seen people scamming food banks with my own eyes, I bet.”
  • “What controls are in place to keep people from scamming food banks?”

We put some of readers’ common concerns together for Paul Gaither, the spokesperson for Central Texas Food Bank. Here’s what he had to say (These are not OUR questions, by the way, these are readers’ questions.):

1. Paul, how many people get free food from CTFB a day/week/month/or year?

The Central Texas Food Bank is on the front line of hunger relief in a 21 county area that’s twice the size of Massachusetts, helping nearly 46,000 Central Texans each week access nutritious food when they need it the most. In the last fiscal year (2017), we distributed more than 45 million pounds of food – more than ever before. That’s equivalent to more than 38 million meals.

It’s also important to keep in mind that last year our food rescue efforts kept more than 22 million pounds of food from ending up in landfills, redirecting it to those in need. So almost half of the food we distributed would have otherwise gone to waste if we hadn’t help get it to those in need.

2. Who are these people and why do they need food?

In Central Texas, 1 in 6 people are food insecure. For children, that number is even higher at 1 in 5. That means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

And it’s important to remember that the face of hunger isn’t what you might think. Contrary to the stereotype held by many, the majority of Food Bank clients are working (some have more than one job) or are from the most vulnerable segments of our society: they are children, disabled, and older adults. Some basic facts:

  • 93 percent of our clients are not homeless
  • Nearly two-thirds of our client households had at least one working adult at home in the last year
  • An estimated 25 percent of households served by the Central Texas Food Bank report that someone in their household has served in the US Armed Forces or as a member of the military Reserve or National Guard
  • There’s more than just food in play here: about 80 percent of our clients had to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care in the past year; two-thirds had to choose between food and housing
  • More than 60 percent of our clients must rely on receiving food from us or one of our Partner Agencies as a part of their everyday lives.

The bottom line is that many of our clients are either unable to work or are the working poor, who just need some help making ends meet now and again.

3. What do they do to prove to food pantries that they need food?

When clients arrive at one of our partner pantries or mobile pantries, the agency or Food Bank representative will ask them to fill out a basic form to show that they live in the area and ask that they declare that they need help with food.

To help with life circumstances that may be contributing to the need for food, many of our partners provide additional support services such as managing budgets, job training, health services and help with transportation. Clients may be required to provide additional information to the agency to receive such help.

4. But how can you be sure they really need the free food? How can you be sure they deserve it?

First of all, everyone deserves food. It’s a basic building block of any strong, humane society. Without it, people don’t have an opportunity to reach their potential as fully-functional contributors to our community and our entire society suffers.

Second, for us at the Food Bank and the thousands of caring Central Texas who support our efforts, hunger is just plain unacceptable, especially in such an affluent, booming area. If someone is driven by need and has the courage to reach out for help, they won’t be refused.

We’re all human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity at all times.

5. But I work hard and my parents worked hard and everybody I have ever known works hard…why should they get free food?

Most of our clients who are able also work hard. Or they have sacrificed to serve our country. But the fact of the matter is that the booming Central Texas economy doesn’t seem to be benefiting everyone who lives here, so some people need a helping hand now and then.

6. But if they have a cell phone and a car and are smoking cigarettes, should they get free food?

Things that some might consider to be “luxuries” (like a car or a cell phone) really have become necessities in this day and age, especially for the large percentage of our clients who work. This doesn’t mean that our clients who have these things are careless with their money and, therefore, are undeserving of our help.

7. What if they’re fat? Do they need food?

Of course they need food. But this points to the fact that hunger is not just a humanitarian issue, it is a public health issue, since obesity is often the result of improper nutrition. Our neighbors in need often have to rely on high-fat food items and fast foods that are usually less costly than more healthful foods. But given a preference, they would make other choices.

Our research indicates that our clients prefer healthy food. Meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruit and dairy products are at the top of their preference list. This makes sense, given that most clients often can’t afford to buy these foods. The Central Texas Food Bank is committed to providing healthy foods that promote healthy lives. That’s why over one-third of the food we distributed in the last fiscal year was produce and why we have a plan to increase that amount even more in the years ahead.

8. Do you think they use their children to make you feel sorry for them so they can get free food?

Our clients come to us because they need help or their children need help. Regardless of whether they have a child with them, they will receive food. In my opinion, it has to be tough to admit to those who are relying on you that you need help. So I see it as a strength rather than a weakness when someone comes to a food distribution with their family.

9. Aren’t there people who come to get free food more than once? Or go to multiple food pantries?

Client intake forms are in use at most pantries and soup kitchens to assure that each client only accesses food or services once on any given day or within a certain period. We have a large network of resources available to those in need. So if their need is severe enough for them to visit various pantries, they have that option.

10. But I’m still mad. These people need to work hard like I do. Nobody gives me free food. If I needed food, I wouldn’t be asking for a handout, I’d work. Could I get free food?

Again, the vast majority of those who access our services are either working and just can’t make ends meet or are simply unable to work.

For someone who’s mad that those in need are getting a helping hand, I’d extend an invitation to volunteer at one of our nearly 300 Partner Agencies or at a mobile food pantry. They’d have a chance to see first-hand how extensive the hunger problem is, meet some of our clients to discover that they’re people, too, and get a feel for just how grateful they are for any help. Even the most hard-bitten cynics who have done this usually come away with a very different perspective.

To volunteer, donate, find a pantry, or learn how you can get food, visit Central Texas Food Bank.


Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

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