Bill Aims to Stop Child Summer Hunger

June 9, 2014

As my last post said, the summer meal programs subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reach only a fraction of children whose family incomes are low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year.

So a far larger number are at risk of hunger — and their parents more so because they go without to keep their children fed, as they themselves say and USDA food insecurity data confirm.

No one, I hope, would argue that we ought to do away with the summer meal programs, though you never can tell, these days. But both their track record and inherent limits suggest they’re not the sole answer to summertime hunger.

Senator Patty Murray has introduced a bill — the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act — that could very well do what its title says. At the same time, it would reduce, if not altogether avert what’s probably more common parent hunger.

Basically, the bill would provide families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals with the cost equivalent of free breakfasts and lunches during the summer break.

Their summer food budget supplement would be loaded onto an electronic benefits transfer card like the EBT card now used for SNAP (food stamp) benefits — and in some states, also WIC benefits.

This would initially give families an extra $150 per school-age child for the summer. As with SNAP, they could use their cards only to purchase food and non-alcoholic beverages.

Stipends would be adjusted to keep pace with USDA’s school meal reimbursement rates, which are subject to annual adjustments based on a Consumer Price Index for “food away from home,” i.e., the costs of foods and beverages purchased in restaurants, carry-outs and the like.

Murray’s proposal builds on a USDA-funded project to explore alternative ways of bridging gaps in regular school meal programs.

You may have read about it recently because Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee caused quite a flap in certain left-leaning quarters when they restricted the next phase to rural counties in the Appalachian region.

Senator Murray is apparently satisfied with the results of the initial pilot — as well she might be. The evaluation team found, among many things, that the summer EBT cards, providing basically the same benefit her bill would, reduced very low food security among children by 33%.

Translated from USDA-speak, this means that nearly a third of the children who’d otherwise at least sometimes literally not have had enough to eat didn’t go hungry. And they ate more good things like fruits and veggies too.

A veritable host of major organizations have endorsed the Murray bill. Doubtful, however, that it will go anywhere at this point — not because it would add to the deficit (heaven forefend), but in part because of the way Murray would pay for it.

Specifically, her bill would offset the estimated $42 billion 10-year cost by closing a corporate tax loophole that enables multinationals to deduct interest they pay on debt they take on to finance offshore operations before they report any related income on their U.S. tax returns — assuming they ever do.

One can hardly expect multinationals to hold their fire — or “business-friendly” members of Congress either.

Beyond this, as Rob Hotakainen at McClatchyDC notes, some members of Congress don’t much care for the subsidized school meal programs the Murray bill would complement.

Recall Congressman Paul Ryan’s embarrassingly untrue story of the child who longed for a brown-bag lunch lovingly prepared by his mom.

And, less widely reported, the “evidence” his War on Poverty report cited for impacts of the school lunch program — only possible contributions to child obesity.

Well, the Child Nutrition Act is due for renewal next year. This will give Congress a chance to review and perhaps revise the Summer Food Service Program, as well as eight other programs that aim to ensure that children are healthy and hunger-free, as the title of the current law says.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like the Murray bill folded into larger proposals for strengthening the CNA programs.

It would be a good addition to — not substitute for — measures to strengthen the summer meal programs, which got short shrift last time round, as the Food Research and Action Center has noted.

But whether Congress will be inclined to expand the CNA is, at best, an open question.

 

 


Summer Brings Hunger, Despite Free Meal Programs for Children

June 5, 2014

“I usually do, in the summertime, go without eating, says Jean C., one of the Witnesses to Hunger. She tells her kids she’ll eat later, but the oldest has caught on.

Summer is always an especially difficult time for low-income parents with school-age children.

During most of the school year, their kids get free or reduced-price lunches. A growing number also get no-cost or low-cost breakfasts. They may get an after-school snack — or even supper — if they stay to participate in an “educational or enrichment” activity, e.g. tutoring, a photography class.

But summer rolls round. Now parents have to stretch their budgets to serve three squares a day, every day — and like as not, something in between.

Not surprisingly, Census surveys have found higher rates of food insecurity among families with school-age children during summer months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers two summer meal programs designed to address this problem — one only for schools that provide subsidized lunches during the school year and one for nonprofits and government agencies generally.

With some exceptions, subsidies are available only to programs in areas where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals — or (extra paperwork here) to those that can show that half the children they serve do.

But meals are free to all participating children. And USDA’s more inclusive program — the Summer Food Service Program — reimburses at somewhat higher rates than for free school breakfasts and lunches during the school year.

The summer meal programs are doing better than in recent years, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s just-released status report. But better isn’t all that great.

Nationwide, the programs served more than 2.9 million children during July 2013 — 15.1% of children who’d received free or reduced-price lunches during the prior school year.

This is surely better than July 2012, when they served 14.3%. The higher rate, however, reflects not only an increase in the number of children served, but a smaller decrease in the number who’d received free or reduced-price lunches.

And it’s still lower than rates before 2010, when a downward trend had already set in. By way of comparison, the rate was 20.8% in 2002.

FRAC cites recession-related budget cuts to programs that commonly serve subsidized summer meals — both summer school and a variety of others, e.g., arts and crafts classes at public recreation centers, daytime soccer camps.

Even so, only about one in five children who might have gone hungry — or more likely, caused their parents to — benefited from a summer meal program more than five years before the Great Recession set in.

This suggests other limits. So do FRAC’s more recent participation rate breakouts, which consistently show wide variations among states — in the latest case, ranging from 30.4% in New Mexico to 4.5% in Oklahoma.

First off, the SFSP hinges on sponsors to launch and operate programs — and so on interest, organizational capacities and resources the subsidies don’t provide. And so-called area eligibility, i.e., the 50% rule I mentioned above, tends to limit where they can locate their programs.

Summer meals are said to help draw children into worthwhile activities. But I’ve been told the opposite is also true.

In other words, sponsors generally need to offer activities with some appeal because the prospects of something free to eat aren’t a sufficient magnet. Or perhaps they might be, but carry a stigma the activities counteract.

Sponsors and other community organizations need to let families know what the programs offer and where — seemingly obvious, but only 40% of low-income families recently surveyed knew where free summer meal sites were located.

Transportation to program sites is a problem, especially in rural areas. Elsewhere also, since 40% of the food-insecure parents surveyed — not nearly all of them rural — cited lack of transportation as a reason their children didn’t participate in a summer meal program.

There’s a whole other kind of limit. FRAC tells us that July is generally the peak month for summer meal programs. In other words, many don’t operate from the time schools close to the time they open again.

So presumably parents of many of those more than 2.9 million children had to come up with the three squares a day during some good part of the summer vacation.

All of which is to say that USDA’s summer meal programs, fine as they are, may not be the solution to hunger for parents like Jean — and in worse cases, their children.

They could get help from a bill recently introduced in Congress — of which more in my next post.


Congress Members Demand Equal Rights for White Potatoes

May 19, 2014

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a final rule for what must and may be in the WIC food packages that state agencies establish for their supplemental nutrition assistance to low-income pregnant women, mothers and young children.

This is altogether good news for the more than 8.6 million moms and kids the program serves — and for everyone who cares about children’s health.

Research indicates that the nutrition aid, health screenings and related referrals that WIC provides help ensure that babies don’t come into the world with high mortality risks, e.g., premature, weighing dangerously little.

And a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that improvements in the WIC food packages may help explain the marked drop in obesity among young children. Now USDA has set the stage for more.

Mothers will have a wider range of dairy and whole grain choices and an additional $2.00 a month to buy fruits and vegetables for their kids. They’ll be able to buy them for older infants, instead of baby food versions.

What they won’t be able to do is use their coupons to buy white potatoes — not a new exclusion. But the potato industry is outraged. “We can’t have the federal government perpetuating … negative stereotypes,” says the head of the National Potato Council.

Members of Congress have leaped to the defense of the allegedly maligned — but oft eaten — white potato.

Last year, four Senators tried to get the white potato into WIC packages by amending the then-evolving Farm Bill.

Failing that, Idaho Senator Mike Simpson stuck a provision into this year’s budget bill that requires the Secretary of Agriculture to order all state agencies to put the white potato into their WIC packages — or explain why he wouldn’t.

The Secretary instead initiated a new IOM review of the WIC food packages. Not good enough. Twenty Senators recently wrote him to “urge … immediate action to remedy the unwarranted exclusion of white potatoes.”

Echoing talking points from the NPC, they allege that IOM used outdated dietary guidelines and ignored the fiber and other nutrients that make white potatoes such a healthful thing to eat.

No one, of course, is claiming that white potatoes lack any nutritional value. The issue is rather whether mothers and young children should eat more of them than they already do. The IOM concluded that they ate plenty.

Our bipartisan potato defenders — many of them recipients of NPC campaign contributions — now seem poised to take matters into their own hands.

David Rogers at Politico reports that lead Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee plan to put a white potato mandate into the USDA appropriations bill. He (reasonably) expects support from enough Democrats to pass it.

We’ll probably see a similar — perhaps also bipartisan — maneuver in the House.

This isn’t just another instance of a well-funded special interest getting its way. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, Congress has never required WIC to include — or exclude — any particular food.

Not that members haven’t tried. Back in the late 1990s, for example, both Senators from Kellogg’s home state pushed for the mandatory inclusion of the company’s Raisin Bran, which exceeded the WIC sugar limit.

So you see what this white potato campaign could lead to. The president of the Children’s Health Fund asks, only half-jokingly, “Will Big Twinkie soon claim underrpresentation in toddlers’ diets too?”

It’s not only WIC — and the young children whose health it supports — that are endangered by such meddling.

In 2011, Congress blocked a change in the nutrition standards for school lunches that would have kept schools from counting pizza as a vegetable based on the tiny bit of tomato paste used to make the sauce. It also deferred a phased-in reduction of sodium in the meals schools served.

And — wouldn’t you know? — it kept USDA from limiting servings of starchy vegetables, e.g., white potatoes.

Now House Republicans are reportedly considering again using the agriculture appropriations bill to block rules implementing other improvements in school meal programs that Congress authorized when it renewed the Child Nutrition Act.

And again apparently some bipartisanship. Seems that our concerned policymakers would prefer to let schools continue serving white rice, white bread and other foods made wholly with bleached flour, rather than more healthful whole-grain alternatives.

They object to new standards for “competitive foods,” i.e. those sold on school grounds in vending machines, snack bars and the like.

Heaven forfend students shouldn’t be able to make a lunch of chips and a candy bar, washed down with a soda — and schools to make money on them, as some administrators say they have.

At least some of the policymakers are responding to administrators’ complaints — not only the revenue losses, but more food waste because kids don’t take to the whole-grain pasta and/or the fruits and veggies. Some also fret about the higher costs of serving healthier meals.

But studies suggest that kids will adjust to the healthier meals over time. And if USDA’s reimbursement rates aren’t high enough, Congress can increase them.

This is an appropriate role for our elected officials. Overriding science-based rules that will improve child nutrition isn’t.

 

 

 


How States Can Ease the Budget Crunch as Poor Families’ Incomes Rise

May 1, 2014

My last post summarized some policy changes Children’s HealthWatch advocates to avert losses of SNAP (food stamp) benefits before families are in good enough financial shape to make up the difference.

These are all changes Congress would have to authorize. Lots of luck there.

But as with the minimum wage, states can act when Congress won’t. CHW has some recommendations for them — and might have had another if it had finished its report after Congress passed the new Farm Bill.

Happily, several of CHW’s recommendations will be irrelevant to most states because their policies already make SNAP benefits available to households that aren’t quite so poor as the standard federal rules require.

Unhappily, states that haven’t probably won’t — at least so long as right-wingers control the policymaking apparatus. Witness how some are foregoing waivers that would preserve benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents.

Here nevertheless are CHW’s policy solutions for states.

One is broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP — a policy already in place in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

With this option, states can raise the gross income cut-off to 200% of the federal poverty line, thus opening the door to more families whose deductions, e.g., housing, childcare costs, would bring their net income below the FPL. Nothing states can do about the net income cut-off.

States can also lift or altogether eliminate the standard $2,000 limit on “countable” assets, e.g., money in the bank, all but $4,650 of the value of a car.

Here again, CHW is more or less preaching to the choir, since only a few states still impose the standard asset test. And 35, plus the District have none at all.

Or perhaps the sermon was indirectly to House Republicans, who wanted the new Farm Bill to end broad-based categorical eligibility — and with it, states’ flexibility on asset tests.

A last recommendation would keep families from going over the SNAP cliff due to temporary income increases, e.g., occasional spurts in work hours, a lone child support check.

States can require recipients to recertify, i.e., prove they’re still eligible, yearly, instead of at the minimum four-month intervals. Some states and the District already do.

They can also, CHW says, smooth the “peaks and valleys” by averaging income over several months, rather than the prior four weeks.

Either or both of these would eliminate the off-again-on-again-experience that Witness to Hunger Tianna Gaines-Turner, among others, has complained of — and to some extent, the food insecurity they suffer because of the time lag between income dips and SNAP renewals.

Now, as I mentioned, states can do one thing CHW didn’t advocate due to timing. They can prevent the benefits cuts House Republicans got into the Farm Bill by giving SNAP households a somewhat larger LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit.

The LIHEAP benefit can qualify some eligible households for a larger SNAP benefit than they’d otherwise receive. This, in a small way, would mitigate the much larger problem — benefits that are altogether insufficient to cover the costs of a reasonably healthful diet, even before they’re reduced due to income increases.

Eight states have thus far said they’d raise their LIHEAP benefits to the new $20 per year threshold. The District is likely to do the same, since the boost is in the Mayor’s proposed budget — and not controversial, so far as we can tell.

The move certainly is controversial in Congress. House Speaker John Boehner has called it “fraud,” though it’s nothing of the sort. Four House committee chairman have demanded to know what the U.S. Health and Human Services Department intends to do about it.

However this plays out, SNAP benefits still leave a very large number of people at risk of hunger, as Feeding America’s new Map the Meal Gap report suggests.

Not much more states can do about this either. The average nationwide cost of a meal is about $1.00 higher than the maximum per meal SNAP benefit for a four-person family. The gap in the District is closer to $2.00 — and presumably similar in other high-cost cities.

States can, however, minimize the number of people for whom hunger is an everyday experience — through better SNAP outreach, for example, and cross-linked benefits processing.

And to return to where I started, they can make it easier for families who’ve inched up the income scale to keep food on the table without coming up short on the rent.

 

 


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