Serving the Hungry - Fall 2016 Newsletter

In Short Supply: American Families Struggle to Secure Everyday Essentials

FamilyFeeding America, with funding from Proctor & Gamble, conducted a survey of food pantry clients to identify their ability to afford and acquire basic non-food household goods – including personal hygiene products, household care and baby care. Results indicate that many American families struggle to afford these items and make trade-offs with other living expenses and employ coping strategies to provide essential household goods. Both low-income – those at or below 200% of the federal poverty limit – and higher-income – those above 200% of the
federal poverty limit – households were surveyed.

Highlights of Key Findings

  • Approximately one-third of low-income families reported challenges affording basic household goods in the past year.
  • Families used a variety of coping strategies to afford personal care and household care items such as stretching, substituting, borrowing or doing without.
  • Respondents expressed concerns about other people’s opinions of their families and their ability to be good parents.


In the United States, 1 in 7 people struggles with hunger. Feeding America and other emergency food relief organizations have conducted much research around food insecurity across our country, however little research has been conducted to better understand the struggle families experience in obtaining non-food household goods, including products related to personal care, household care and baby care.

List of needed itemsMajor Findings

“Basic essentials” were defined by families during interviews as “products that cannot be foregone or easily substituted.” These items include soap, toilet paper, diapers and feminine hygiene products. While these basic essentials were ranked similarly across all income groups, the ranking of other goods show a divergence of attitudes across income levels.

Obvious differences exist between the rankings of some items between higher-income and low-income households. For example, 79% of higher-income households and 49% of low-income households rank light bulbs as an essential while 60% of low-income households and 36% of higher-income households rank mouthwash as an essential. These differences may be due in part to coping strategies employed by low-income households that are accustomed to using less light as a means of saving money. Also, research indicates that low-income individuals have a much greater likelihood of poor oral health than their higher-income counterparts and the importance placed on dental health products might be related to dental health outcomes.

Low-income families were less able to purchase basic household items. Thirty-four percent of low-income respondents and 5% of higher-income respondents reported “they could not afford these goods during the past year.” Because of limited resources, families often prioritized expenses such as paying for rent, water and utilities, and transportation while placing less emphasis on paying for food and medicine.

Coping Strategies

Families employed a variety of coping strategies to compensate for the absences of these needed goods. All reported having substituted brands or used less than necessary in order to extend the life of a product, and a majority reported skipping washing dishes or doing laundry because they lacked household goods.

Strategies employed include:

  • Borrowing items from friends or neighbors
  • Stretching available goods by using less, washing/cleaning less often or changing diapers less often
  • Substituting items such as shampoo for dish detergent or using baking soda in place of deodorant
  • Stockpiling or purchasing larger quantities when money is available or items are on sale
  • Utilizing charitable programs to obtain food and minimal household goods
  • Doing without by brushing teeth or washing clothes with only water
  • Using public facilities to clean themselves when they do not have products at home

More informationFood Insecurity

“Eighty-two percent of survey respondents who reported being unable to afford basic household goods were identified as having low or very low food security at some point in the year. When compared to the national household food insecurity rate of 14.5%, it is clear that households struggling to afford basic goods experience much higher food insecurity rates than those reported for the general population.” Nearly one-quarter of these individuals reported cutting back on food each month in order to afford basic household goods.

Emotional Toll

Respondents expressed a heightened stress and stigma due to their inability to afford household goods. Many also expressed concerns about their parenting ability because they are unable to pay for these goods, especially personal hygiene and cleaning products, or have to seek alternative means for procuring household goods. “About half of the respondents in both the low- and higher-income groups were concerned about the social stigma regarding their personal appearance and health when they cannot afford basic household goods.” Survey respondents also expressed concerns about having products on hand to reinforce the hygiene habits that children were being taught in school, such as brushing teeth, general household health, the impact on their children’s acceptance by other children and their sense of selfimage
and level of stress.

Potential Implications

It is clear through this research that low- and higher-income families struggle to afford basic household essentials to maintain personal hygiene, household care and sense of self. These findings highlight the need for institutions to partner to assist low-income families in meeting basic needs. Charitable organizations working with children and families are encouraged to become particularly aware of both the food and non-food needs of these households. Retail and manufacturing industries are also encouraged to “become engaged in efforts to remove the barriers to access basic household goods.” Because federal assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), focus only on food items, there is a need for other “strategies to help families afford non-food goods that are just as important to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”

A Word from the Agency Director

CornDear Friends,

The events of recent months remind us how vulnerable we are against people who want to do us harm. Lately, we have been bombarded by the accounts of those who were at work on what seemed like a normal day or out at a club for a social evening only to have their lives changed forever. These events can make us feel helpless – even hopeless – and have shattered our view of the world in which we live.

We have another assault on our homeland and it impacts more than 46 million Americans every day. Hunger and its reach has been harming too many families, seniors and children for far too long. How do we know? A recent study commissioned by Feeding America titled, In Short Supply: American Families Struggle to Secure Everyday Essentials, details American families’ inability to purchase non-food items that are vital to their lifestyle and their basic health. This research initiative was driven by the fact that in Hunger in America 2010, 58% of agencies reported that the need for non-food household goods was greater than they could accommodate. In Hunger in America 2014, clients were asked what top three products they would like to receive at the charitable program they visit that the charitable program doesn’t have currently. Nearly one in five (19.4%) households indicated that “non-food products like shampoo, soap or diapers” was one of the top three they most want, but don’t receive.

Families are delaying payment of rent and utilities, which may be of no surprise to most of us, but imagine how 74% of those surveyed report they skip washing dishes or doing laundry. And worse, 44% claim they delay changing a diaper! This condition can also make us feel helpless, and even hopeless, to do anything, but it is within our reach to each do something to lessen this assault on our neighbors and families. Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank is helping to transform our community to provide help and create hope to families in need.

In the last week of July, we picked the first of three separate harvests of sweet corn. A partnership with Ivy Tech, Ceres Solutions, Westminster Village, Community Harvest Food Bank, Bane Welker, Syngenta and the First Southern Baptist Church will ultimately generate and distribute more than 150,000 ears of sweet corn. Indiana product, grown by Indiana citizens, feeding Indiana’s hungry. This is the first time we’ve tried to take on a project of this magnitude, and it must be recognized we could never do this on our own. With great partners coming together to join forces and share resources, we have the chance to be part of something much bigger and more meaningful – feeding hungry people.

Still feeling hopeless, even helpless? You shouldn’t and here’s why: we are Americans and we stand for freedom. That means we do what ought to be done with responsibility, action and virtue. Much like the story of the Good Samaritan, we see an injustice and we stop, even go out of our way if necessary, to help the injured and the vulnerable. It is through taking action we demonstrate our virtue of God’s love and grace.

God bless you,

John C. Etling

“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25: 40

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Need Help Finding Food?

If you need help finding food or know someone who does, call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479). The Hunger Hotline is available Monday – Friday from 9am – 6pm. All calls are free and confidential. Help someone you know receive the nutrition they need to remain healthy and productive.

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