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What is free food worth? An evaluation of welfare effects on food pantries

AAEA members release new research in AJAE

Food pantries played a substantial role in stemming food insecurity over the course of the pandemic. They are more flexible than public assistance, without the need for significant enrollment procedures.  For this reason, they played an important role in buffering the shocks from the recent pandemic and the current rise in food prices.  Households are able to make use of these services as the need arises.

In the new article “What is free food worth? A nonmarket valuation approach to estimating the welfare effects of food pantry services” published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Anne Byrne from the USDA Economic Research Service and David Just from Cornell University, measure the value of food pantry services to the household that make use of them.

Their research found that families who attend the food pantry are obtaining between $600 and $1000 of value annually. This is a substantial amount for a low income household. This suggests that food pantries nationwide are adding between $19 billion and $28 billion annually.  For reference, this is substantially more than the estimated value of sales from farmers markets (about $9 billion) and substantially smaller than the value of SNAP benefits (typically at least $65 billion). The study focused on a food bank in Colorado. The value of the food pantry system to clients in Larimer County Colorado is estimated to be between $9.8 and $11.4 million annually, making the food pantry system a key contributor to the local community.

Just says “A few years back, Anne had a conversation with a food bank program manager and asked what questions she was interested in. She replied, 'I know the numbers we have about quantities, tax credits, etc. but I would love to know what these services really mean to the people we serve. What is our value to the community?' Anne came back to me and suggested we could use their administrative data to answer that question by looking at what their clients gave up in order to get to the pantry, and I immediately agreed."   

If you are interested in setting up an interview to learn more about their findings, please contact Allison Ware in the AAEA Business Office.

ABOUT AAEA: Established in 1910, the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) is the leading professional association for agricultural and applied economists, with 2,500 members in more than 60 countries. Members of the AAEA work in academic or government institutions as well as in industry and not-for-profit organizations, and engage in a variety of research, teaching, and outreach activities in the areas of agriculture, the environment, food, health, and international development. The AAEA publishes three journals, the Journal of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (an open access journal), the American Journal of Agricultural Economics and Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy, as well as the online magazine Choices and the online open access publication series Applied Economics Teaching Resources. To learn more, visit

Contact: Allison Ware
Senior Communications &Membership Manager
(414) 918-3190