|Abstract or Summary
- Hunger is among the greatest contemporary social problems in the United States. An incredible 48 million people, or 14% of households, experienced food insecurity during 2014. At the same time, public responses to food insecurity, such as the Emergency Food Assistance Program, have increasingly relied on the “emergency food network,” comprised of independent charitable organizations operated by private employees and volunteers. Though substantial research has been dedicated to the question of how public sector “street-level bureaucrats” (SLBs) exercise discretion in addressing problems associated with poverty, little has examined these private-sector employees and volunteers trying to improve American families’ food security. Drawing from data collected through semi-structured interviews of 20 leaders and staff in food pantries and food banks in Oregon, this paper argues for applying role theory to advance our understanding of discretionary decision-making among food pantry directors and leaders (FPDs). Specifically, it (1) offers a typology of role expectations observed among FPDs; (2) offers evidence that role strain is produced when these role expectations are in conflict; and (3) discusses some of the primary coping mechanisms that help FPDs reconcile this role strain. The development of these concepts suggests implications for how role strain may impede efforts to reduce food insecurity. Finally, the paper makes a number of recommendations for a revised approach to governance of private and semi-private social service networks addressing a wide array of social problems faced by low-income Americans.