Ashyle Horton had volunteered in the past for the program that runs the University of Arkansas campus food pantry, but showing up as a client was an entirely different experience.
“I was very fearful and nervous,” said Horton, 22. “It felt so weird going to a food pantry to get help.”
The graduating senior says she desperately needed the pasta, rice and other staples on the food bank shelves, but she worried that others might judge her, that they would think she ought to be able to get by on her own.
“I never thought that I would be struggling as much as I have this year,” said Horton, whose already-stretched income dropped abruptly when her hours were cut at the disability services agency where she works.
Suddenly, she found herself among the 50 million people in the U.S. who live in food-insecure households each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pushing past the stigma of need was a hurdle for Horton — as it is for many who find themselves in that situation, says Angela Oxford, director for the Fayetteville school’s Center for Community Engagement.
Oxford is among the ranks of local, state and federal experts — officials from program managers to academic researchers — who work to reduce the onus of needing help.
“There is a stigma in that people just want to be able to take care of themselves,” Oxford said. “People don’t want to have to get assistance.”
Across the U.S., safety-net programs aimed at reaching the nearly 1 in 7 Americans living in poverty struggle to reach those in need. Food stamp enrollment climbed to record levels following the recent recession, with nearly 48 million participants in December 2012.
Still, 1 in 4 people who are eligible for food stamps don't sign up, on average, the USDA says. Participation drops sharply in certain subgroups, as well. Only 34 percent of seniors and 60 percent of working poor households who could receive food stamps actually do, the USDA says.
That’s largely because of the perceived shame of taking a hand-out, researchers say.
“Stigma seems to be a big barrier to participation,” said Colleen Flaherty Manchester, an assistant professor of management at the University of Minnesota who studies the issue. “We find it to be quite substantial.”
In fact, psychological barriers appear to be three times greater than time costs — the effort and hassle it takes to enroll — in determining whether people seek benefits, Manchester said.
“I think it has to do with feelings of reduced self-efficacy, reduced self-esteem, psychological pressure from going against the social norm,” she said.
Federal officials have tried to tackle the stigma issue in recent years. First they gave the Food Stamp Program a catchy new name -- SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Then they traded conspicuous food stamp coupons for discreet electronic benefit cards.
The USDA now runs cheery radio ads touting SNAP as a nutrition program, not a welfare plan, and the agency has worked to ease red tape and to reach out to underserved populations.
As a result, some experts say that stigma about receiving benefits is less than it was a dozen years ago, when states like New York erected complicated barriers to simply apply for the aid.
“I think stigma in general has been falling as a quotient in affecting social behavior,” said Thomas Fomby, a professor of economics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who has just launched a research project into the causes of hunger in North Texas.
Others, however, say there’s still considerable room for improvement.
“Have you ever been to a DHS office?” asked Oxford, referring to state department of human services offices. Even with improvements, potential participants may face long lines, complicated paperwork and embarrassing questions about income and assets.
But critics of the federal food program believe that it should be more difficult to get government benefits. They take aim at SNAP's ballooning numbers and its $78 billion a year cost.
“It remains a program that discourages work, rewards idleness and promotes long-term dependence,” the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley wrote last summer.
Other critics argue that it should be the role of churches and charities, not the government, to provide food to people in need.
That would include the Arkansas campus food pantry, which is one of 50 college and university programs that have sprung up nationwide. There, as elsewhere, the emphasis is on offering help without rubbing it in, Oxford said.
No one will eyeball a student’s laptop and cell phone and figure that he or she is a rich kid trying to scam the system, she said. Students can apply discreetly online for food, there’s rarely a long waiting line — and they don’t get standard-issue boxes of food. Instead, clients are allowed to choose the foods they want from the pantry shelves.
“That’s part of the dignity piece,” Oxford said.
For Ashyle Horton, her need for the food pantry may end with graduation this spring. She has applied for City Year, a national service program, and she hopes to pursue a master’s degree after that. But her months of accepting pasta and rice from the pantry have given her more empathy for others in that situation, she says.
"I don’t like to tell people when I’m in need,” she said. “I like to help other people.”