Chapter Two: Estimating Your Community’s Charity Food Needs

If your objective is to end hunger in your community, you need to measure your results or you won’t know the impact of your efforts. Are you meeting 10 percent of the need, or 85 percent or 30 percent? The only way to know is to determine what 100 percent of the problem equals, which in this case means knowing how many pounds of food aid are likely needed per year.

A simple formula exists for estimating that need. It is based on the only two studies of need that I am aware of that dared to toss a number on the table. They were very different studies, but their estimates came out just pocket change different from each other. The formula should predict within a few percentage points approximately how many pounds of food aid per year is required to reach your area’s needy families in order to make your area hunger-free.

The formula is simple: Multiply the number of people in the area who have incomes at or below the poverty level times 234 pounds. The result is the best estimate of your community’s annual charity food assistance need.

The two simplest ways to estimate the number of people in poverty in your community are to call the reference desk at your local public library or to visit the U.S. Census Bureau Web site at

This method of estimating need does not suggest that only people with incomes below the poverty level need help, or that anyone in particular needs 234 pounds of food aid. Rather, it simply recognizes that poverty and hunger keep close company and at approximately this ratio of people to need.

Estimate how many food pantries will meet the need

Parts of ending hunger have more to do with physics than philosophy. The reality of charity food programs in America is that very few of them have the luxury of being housed in a facility designed for that activity or of having a large truck or trucks for transporting food. Most food programs, quite frankly, are squeezed into a corner or a room of a church basement and have only their volunteers’ own personal vehicles available for food transportation purposes. These limitations significantly limit the program’s food-handling capacity without regard to the area’s need.

For example, suppose only one volunteer is willing or able to go and pick up food from the program’s primary food source, ideally the area’s regional nonprofit food bank, and that they are willing to perform that volunteer task just once per week. The carrying capacity of the volunteer’s vehicle multiplied by 52 weeks equals the food program’s carrying capacity. Or suppose the program has very limited food storage space or is able to be open just a few days per month. These factors will also define how much food can be handled.

In light of these fairly typical constraints, the average charity food assistance program in America probably has an annual carrying capacity of about 40,000 pounds. Recognizing this fact is of huge importance to United Ways, food banks, community foundation, and others who seek to end hunger in entire communities or states.

After several estimates of food needs in many communities across the United States, and estimates of these community’s carrying capacities, it has been determined that most communities only have about one-fifth of the capacity they need to end hunger. In some cases communities have responded by developing ways to enhance existing agencies’ carrying capacity. That works. But in many areas, there is a need for more groups to get involved in distributing food aid to the needy.

Creating enough distribution to end hunger

Unless you have already done a thorough search or a development and recruitment effort such as this before, chances are excellent that there are already many more food assistance provider agencies in your community than you are aware of. The easiest way to begin identifying them is by checking with the following organizations in more or less this order:

  • If you are not the area’s food bankor food rescue organization, check with your area’s food bank or food rescue organization.
  • Check with your area’s information and referral service.
  • Check with your area’s United Way.
  • Check with your area’s public welfare offices about food pantries they know of.
  • Check with your area’s cooperative extension and public health offices.

In the meantime, if you are researching an area larger than your own immediate community, contact whatever company produces your local phone directory and ask them to send you or to help you secure phone books (yellow pages) for all communities not covered by your local phone book. Phone directory information may also be available online through a service like Search these directories’ under the headings “food,” “human services,” “social services,” and other headings you can think of for additional charity food aid agencies your other searches may have missed.

Contact every church, temple, synagogue and mosque by mail or by phone to see if you can recruit them into becoming a part of your charity food assistance system. Tell them about the size of the hunger problem, about the consequences of hunger and about the number of food pantries needed to end hunger in your area. If they weren’t willing or able to open or operate their own food pantry, get them to commit to at least helping support the pantries other groups were running.

Send out press releases to try to get media coverage of the pantry search and development effort, and seek out opportunities to present the subject to local civic clubs, United Way boards, ministerial alliances and other interested groups.

In most communities, the above efforts can get you 70-80 percent of the way to finding, developing and recruiting the number food pantries required to end hunger in your area.

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