Food pantry clients struggle to buy diapers, toiletries

Many food-insecure families also struggle to afford basic non-food household goods, such as personal care, household, and baby-care products, according to a new University of Illinois study published in the Journal of Economic Issues.

“These families often make trade-offs with other living expenses and employ coping strategies in an effort to secure such household items as toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, or disposable diapers. What’s more, nearly 3 in 4 low-income families have cut back on food in the past year in order to afford these essential non-food items,” said Barbara H. Fiese, director of the U of I’s Family Resiliency Center.

The researchers found that more than 33 million people used food pantries to supplement their basic food needs, with 1 in 3 low-income families experiencing difficulty in affording basic household items.

In interviews of food pantry clients, the researchers used the Red Cross disaster relief list to help clients identify the personal household products most essential to daily living, then asked them about the consequences of going without these products and the strategies they used to secure them. Thirty-two percent of the households were headed by single parents, and most households lived on less than $800 a month, she said.

“These parents really struggled to get personal hygiene and household cleaning products, sometimes even giving up prescription medication to afford these items. They may have resorted to taking toilet paper from public places. Other coping strategies include watering down products to make them last longer, substituting one product for another, not paying bills, and simply going without,” she added.

Three themes recurred in the interviews: retaining personal respect, being a good parent, and keeping the family healthy, Fiese said.

“Parents didn’t want their children to be thought of as dirty or unclean because they didn’t have access to laundry detergent or toothbrushes and toothpaste. They also feared being judged for not taking care of their kids and worried that they might be turned in for neglect,” she added.

For families with infants and toddlers, adequate sources of diapers were important. Although some food pantries had diapers, participants reported that they sometimes had to travel from pantry to pantry to get enough to meet their needs.

Laundry detergent was another pricey item with many families saying that they go without or only do laundry occasionally.

The results of the interviews used in this study have been used to design a larger, nationally representative phone survey to help food banks assess their clients’ concerns.

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