Short Title

The Cost of Free Assistance


Non-governmental free food assistance is available to many lowincome Americans through food pantries. However, most do not use this assistance, even though it can be worth over $2,000 per year. Survey research suggests concrete barriers, such as lack of information, account for non-use. In contrast, qualitative studies focus on the role of cultural factors, such as stigma. Drawing on interviews with 53 low-income individuals in San Francisco who did not use food pantries, we reconcile these findings by illustrating how the two types of barriers are connected. Reasons for non-use such as need, information, long lines, and food quality were rooted in respondents' subjective understandings of those for whom the service was intended, those perceived to use the service, and the service's respect for the community. Increasing nonprofit service utilization requires attention to how potential users relate seemingly objective barriers to subjective interpretations.