Acute Food Needs Now Monthly Events For More Than Three Million U.S. Households

October 25, 2011

Food pantry visits are becoming “the new normal,” reports Feeding America, the country’s largest charitable food distribution organization.

The “new normal” here refers to a shift in the role food pantries play in helping low-income people feed themselves and their families.

People used to seek help from food pantries when they had what Feeding America refers to as “temporary acute food needs.”

Now, it says, a majority of clients use pantries “as part of their long-term strategies to supplement monthly food shortfalls.” In other words, “acute food needs” aren’t occasional emergencies. They’re regular, foreseeable events.

Feeding America has come to this conclusion by analyzing client responses to a survey it conducted in 2009.

According to the new analysis:

  • More than half (54%) of the clients surveyed had used a pantry for at least six months during the past year.
  • More than a third of them (36%) had used a pantry at least once a month during the past year.
  • These frequent users reported using a pantry for, on average, more than 28 consecutive months.

We learn two different, perhaps related facts about these recurrent and/or frequent pantry clients.

First, 58% of them received SNAP (food stamp) benefits — another clear indication that the benefits often don’t cover the costs of a month’s worth of food.

Second, a disproportionate number of recurrent users were seniors. One out of three of all recurrent users was 60 or older. And 56% of them were long-term recurrent users.

This too sheds some light on the food stamp program.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest report on SNAP participation trends, only 34% of eligible seniors, i.e., those at least 60 years old, were enrolled in Fiscal Year 2009. This is 38% lower than for the eligible population as a whole.

The low participation rate for seniors continues a long-term trend. Studies have produced a variety of explanations, summarized by the Food Research and Action Center in a broader review of research on access and access barriers to getting food stamps.

Some of the barriers deter participation by other groups as well, e.g., the stigma attached to “welfare,” complex applications processes, difficulties in getting to a food stamp office, long waiting times once there, the need to go back and wait recurrently to again prove eligibility.

But one barrier stands out for seniors in particular. They decide the hassles just aren’t worth the small amount they can get.

USDA’s recently-released report on the characteristics of SNAP households shows that, for most, the benefits are truly small.

Of the fewer than 2.9 million seniors who got food stamps in 2010, 80% lived alone. Their average monthly benefit was $119 — or about $1.30 per meal.

This might explain why some low-income seniors decide to rely on their own scarce resources, supplemented by free food from a friendly pantry rather than cope with the hassles involved in getting food stamps.

Also why seniors who do get food stamps would have to develop an anti-hunger strategy that includes regular visits to a pantry.

Young and old food pantry clients alike face greater risks of hunger in the months to come.

As Feeding America notes, food prices are rising. Food companies are adopting new efficiencies and thus have less surplus to donate.

Bad economic times have reduced charitable donations from other sources. Also triggered cutbacks in funding by some state and local governments.

And to top it all, Congress has cut funding for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program by 40%, leaving $80 million less for local homeless services programs, including food pantries.

The House of Representatives has approved a $63 million cut for TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides about 25% of the foods that Feeding America’s food bank partners distribute to emergency providers like pantries.

Maybe hope for TEFAP in the Senate, though ultimately the House would have to back down.

Still and all, “the beginning of the ‘perfect storm,'” as Feeding America says.


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