Nonprofits Part of the Hunger Solution, But No Substitute for SNAP

September 26, 2013

We’re coming to the end of Hunger Action Month, initiated by Feeding America to build support for ending hunger in our country.

House Republicans celebrated, as I’m sure you know, by voting to deny SNAP (food stamp) benefits to about 3.8 million low-income people.

A few days later and a couple of miles away, the National Cathedral held a hunger forum for its congregants and anyone else who chose to attend or, as I did, watch the live stream on their computer.

One of the speakers, George Jones, spoke briefly about the experience of Bread for the City, where he’s CEO. More people are coming to the organization’s two food pantries, he said. They’re now serving about 5,000 households a month.

We also heard from representatives of smaller, faith-based feeding programs. In the Street Church project, for example, volunteers prepare and serve sandwiches in a downtown park where homeless people gather.

Volunteers in the National Cathedral’s community also prepare sandwiches — these at home — and drop them off, along with fresh fruit for delivery to a mobile soup kitchen operated by Martha’s Table, which also provides bags of groceries to people who’d otherwise go hunger.

Now, we need these projects — and the many others here in the District and in communities nationwide. We would need them even if SNAP benefits were safe, which they aren’t, despite the likelihood that the Senate will reject the harsh, sweeping House cuts.

As I’ve often (too often?) said, SNAP benefits are already too low to cover the monthly costs of reasonably healthful, balanced meals — or in some cases, any meals at all.

We need also to consider that far from everyone eligible for SNAP participates — about one in four, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Lots of reasons for this, as a FRAC research review indicates. Among them is the very low benefit for a single person — currently no more than about $2.19 per meal. Not worth the hassle, some figure — or the stigma, all too often reinforced by checkers and other customers at the grocery store.

For seniors living alone, as most who received SNAP did, the average benefit in 2011 was even lower — $122 a month or roughly $1.34 per meal. This, as I’ve previously noted, helps explain why a Feeding America survey found that a third of all regular pantry clients were 60 or over.

Consider too that not all low-income people in this country are eligible for SNAP. The same law that ended welfare as we knew it established a five-year waiting period for virtually all adult immigrants who came here through proper legal channels.

No benefits ever, of course, for immigrants without the proper papers, though they and their children have the same needs for food as us born-in-America folks.

Resources aren’t the only issue. Access to full-service grocery stores is also often a problem for low-income people — a combination of distance and the need to rely on public transportation.

There are only two supermarkets in the District’s poorest east-of-the-river area served by one of Bread for the City’s pantries, Jones noted.

Put all these problems together with persistently high unemployment rates — recently 14.9% and 22.4% in the District’s two poorest wards.

Add both under-employment and jobs that don’t pay enough to live on and it’s understandable why nearly one in three District households with children didn’t always have enough money for food, according to FRAC’s latest food hardship report.

So it’s heartening that so many nonprofits step into the breach with free meals and/or food to take home. And heartening to know that so many individuals contribute the funds and voluntary services they depend on.

But, as Jones said of his organization’s pantries, they’re “designed to augment food stamps.”

This is a far cry from Congressman Paul Ryan’s claim that the radical cuts he put into the House budget plan — including $135 billion to SNAP — are needed because “the federal government is encroaching on the institutions of civil society … sapping their energy and assuming their role.”

Feeding America reports that the House SNAP cuts, plus the imminent benefits cut for everyone still eligible would result in the loss of about 3.4 billion meals for low-income people in 2014 alone.

This is more than all the meals that its network of food banks distributed through pantries and soup kitchens in the current year.

Here in the District, the Capital Area Food Bank is part of that network. About 250 nonprofits here rely at least in part on the fresh produce and others foods it distributes.

They include Bread for the City, Martha’s Table and others well known in our local community, as well as many that aren’t — except, of course, to the people they feed and the people who make that possible.

So it’s hardly the case that federal safety net programs like SNAP have sapped the energy our civil society institutions — here or nationwide.

It’s rather that they can’t serve as the hunger safety net for the millions of low-income children, seniors, people with disabilities, workers and those who’d work if a job were available who now rely on SNAP to keep food on the table — at least most of the time.

And they’re the first to say that.


Food Hardship Rate Rises Nationwide, Drops in DC

March 6, 2012

The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center delivers some bad news for the nation as a whole and some moderately good news for the District of Columbia.

Food Hardship Nationwide

Nationwide, the food hardship rate increased somewhat in 2011, hitting 18.6% of households surveyed. This means that nearly one in five at some point during the year didn’t have enough money to buy the food the family needed.

The annual rate masks the extent of the upward trend. The food hardship rate during the first quarter of the year was 17.9%. By the fourth quarter, it had risen to 19.4%.

Ongoing high unemployment and underemployment rates account for part of the increase, FRAC says. But rising food prices and the freeze in food stamp benefit increases were also factors.

Costs of the items in the Thrifty Food Plan  market baskets rose 6.2% during 2011. That would ordinarily lead to an increase in food stamp benefits.

But when the Recovery Act boosted the benefits, it also suspended the annual food cost adjustments. Food stamps thus lost 6.2% of their purchasing power last year, though they were still worth more than they would have been without the boost.

Food Hardship in the District

Here in the District, the food hardship rate dropped from 18.9% in 2010 to 16.5% in 2011.

Last year, the District was right in the middle of FRAC’s state rankings. Now it’s slightly below the middle. Twenty-seven states had higher food hardship rates. In 17 of them, rates were at or above 20%.

As I’ve remarked before, the state ranking is, for the District, something of an apples to oranges comparison, since the District is only a city, notwithstanding its various state-like functions.

Fortunately, FRAC also provides food hardship rates for Congressional districts — these reflecting two-year averages to compensate for relatively small survey samples.

Here the District is again somewhat below the median, with a ranking of 295, based on a two-year average of 15.8%.

Nothing to stand up and cheer about. But a whole lot better than the 33.3% in the top-ranking district, which (in gerrymandered fashion) embraces the northern and eastern parts of Houston.

Policy Implications

So what’s the takeaway? Nothing new, but nonetheless important.

It’s crucial, FRAC says, to grow the economy in a way that provides full-time jobs at decent wages. At the same time, we need to strengthen income supports, e.g., unemployment insurance, low-income tax credits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Federal nutrition programs must be strengthened as well so that they reach more households in need and “with more robust benefits.”

For the long term, the latter would involve changing the basis for calculating food stamp benefits — a FRAC recommendation I’ve been harping on for some time.

More immediately, however, Congress has a Fiscal Year 2013 budget to pass.

The President has again recommended that it restore the months it shaved off the boost to help pay for the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act.

Also (again) that it temporarily suspend the time limit that now jeopardizes food stamp benefits for many poor able-bodied adults without dependents.

He proposes modest increases for some key child nutrition programs, including WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

He’s also proposing a bit more for TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program) — perhaps enough to sustain, at the current level, the stream¬† food products that flow to our country’s severely stressed pantries and soup kitchens.

But, as FRAC tactfully observes, “some in Congress” are proposing reductions in federal nutrition programs.

We’re told to expect a House budget plan much like last year’s. That would mean, among other things, a food stamp block grant structured to cut federal spending for the program by some $127 billion over the first ten years.

Some other programs — WIC and TEFAP, for example — would be slated for cuts. They’re doubly vulnerable, since they’re not protected from the across-the-board cuts that will kick in next January.

No doubt we’ve got to grapple with the projected long-term deficit. And the short-term prospects for tax revenues are fair to middlin’.

But “even in difficult times,” FRAC says, “we have the resources to eliminate hunger for everyone.” We could, in fact, gain at least $167.5 billion a year if we did.

Knowing this, the new food hardship figures should prompt second thoughts by our decision-makers — even those safety-net-slashing “some in Congress.”


What We Know (And Don’t) About Family Food Hardship In DC

October 6, 2011

Here’s the issue that’s been perplexing me ever since I read the Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship analysis.

As I earlier wrote, it tells us that an extraordinarily high percentage of District of Columbia households with children — 37.4% in fact — suffered from food hardship in 2009-10. In other words, the adult(s) sometimes didn’t have the resources to buy enough food for everyone in the family.

It would be easy to say, well, that’s because the District has an unusually high family poverty rate. Easy, but too simple. Because the federal government subsidizes a number of nutrition assistance programs.

The best known is the food stamp program — now officially SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the District bonuses for achieving top participation rates in both 2009 and 2010. So it seems unlikely that the family food hardship rate can be explained mainly by lack of food stamp benefits.

However, we’ve got good reasons to believe that food stamp benefits are too low to cover the full costs of food for a poor District family.

This still may not fully explain the family food hardship rate because other programs should have supplemented these benefits — at least, for households with children young enough for school attendance to be compulsory.

Are these programs not reaching the families that suffer from food hardship? Or do the families still run short, even though eligible members participate?

This is the question I said I couldn’t find the answer to. Here’s what I have found.

FRAC reports that the District’s summer meal program serves a very high percentage of low-income children — much higher than all those states with lower family food hardship rates. The base for this percentage is children who got free or reduced-price lunches during the school year — 80.2% last July.

FRAC also tracks school breakfast participation — again using school lunch participation as a benchmark. For the 2009-10 school year, it reports that somewhat over 48% of children who got free or reduced-price lunches also got F/RP breakfasts.*

This puts the District somewhat above the middle of both the state ranking and the large city school district ranking.

But how is the District doing with its school lunch program?

FRAC’s reports indicate growing participation by low-income children. In 2009-10, the total reached 37,306 — mostly children receiving free lunches, i.e., living in households at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

What we need to know is how many eligible children missed out. For that, it seems, we’d need to have access to unpublished data — or, for all I know, data that aren’t even collected.

The same is true for WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

FRAC’s nifty data tool tells us that, in 2009, the average monthly participation in the District totaled 17,463 — 6.5% more than 10 years ago. But we’ve got no benchmark to tell us what percentage of eligible mothers and young children the program served.

Ditto for Head Start, pre-K and daycare programs funded under the federal Child Care Development Block Grant — all of which generally provide kids with something to eat.

The Children’s Defense Fund reports District-level participant numbers for each. Total for 2010 was 5,806. But no percentages to tell us how many eligible children didn’t participate. And no way of knowing whether all who did got meals — or, if so, how many per day.

FRAC’s data tool provides average daily participant numbers for children in D.C. childcare programs, including Head Start, that serve meals or snacks subsidized by the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program.

In 2009, average daily participant numbers for them all totaled 5,948 — about 230 fewer than in 2007. But we’ve no way of knowing whether some low-income children got fed in programs that didn’t participate in CACFP.

And no way of knowing how many low-income children got no federally-subsidized meals or snacks at all. These would surely be children in the households most likely to suffer food hardship.

I’m not saying we need all these data to alleviate food hardship in the District — or for that matter, nationwide. But I do think we need to know more than we do to craft solutions that will give us the biggest bang for the buck.

More bucks too.

* As indicated below, FRAC has issued two school breakfast reports for the 2009-10 school year. The participation rate for the District is 48.4% in one and 48.2% in the other.


DC Tops All States For Family Food Hardship Rate

September 13, 2011

Perhaps you’ve read by now that more than one in three D.C. households with children — 37.4% in fact — suffered from food hardship during the past two years. In other words, the adults in these households couldn’t always afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families.

This is one of many figures in the Food Research and Action Center’s followup analysis of survey data Gallup collected during 2009-10.

Like the analysis I wrote about back in January, it breaks out food hardship by state, Congressional district and metropolitan statistical area, i.e., each of the urban-centered geographical areas the federal government uses for statistical purposes.

The difference is that the new analysis also includes break-outs for households with children and households without. This makes a big difference for the District, as it does nationwide.

Looking at household food hardship rates overall puts the District midway between states with the highest and the lowest. Ranking is nearly the same for households without children. But for households with children, the District’s food hardship rate is higher than any state’s.

One might say this is an apples and oranges comparison because the District is only a city — different, in relevant respects, from even small states. More sensible perhaps to focus on how the District stacks up among Congressional districts.

Not much better. Food hardship rates for households with children were higher in only nine Congressional districts and at least a full percent higher in only five.

How, I wonder, can we account for this?

It’s certainly the case that the District has an unusually high family poverty rate — 25.6% for households with children under 18, as compared to 16.6% nationwide.

But virtually all families below the poverty threshold are eligible for food stamps. And the District has achieved recognition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its success in getting its residents into the food stamp program.

Could it be that food stamp benefits aren’t high enough to pay for a full month’s worth of food for any entire family? I’ve thought so for some time. FRAC as well.

We’ve got some District-specific evidence now in Feeding America’s recent Map the Meal Gap report, which shows that the actual cost of the meal plan USDA uses as the basis for food stamps is considerably higher here than in the nation as a whole.

But now we’re looking only at households with children. Many of them poor enough to be at risk of food hardship don’t have to rely solely on food stamps to feed themselves as their children.

Mothers with young children may get coupons for certain additional food purchases from WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

Some of those younger children may also get free meals and/or snacks in programs like Head Start and child care centers.

School-age children can get free or reduced-price school meals and possibly also after-school snacks or suppers. During summers, meals for all children are free.

Needless to say, the more meals children get in these programs, the fewer the family food budget has to cover.

The issue seems to boil down to this: Are the programs not reaching enough low-income families or are they just not enough to offset food shortages in the home?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time prowling around the Web and can’t find an answer. May provide some answers in a followup posting.

Question marks notwithstanding, we’ve got ample evidence that far too many District residents have sometimes gone hungry. Probably still do.

We’ve got a strong network of nonprofits that serve meals to poor people or give them foods they can prepare at home. We’ve got organizations like DC Hunger Solutions and its partners that strive to increase participation in federally-funded free and reduced-price meals programs.

We’ve got a local government that’s concerned about hunger and nutrition, though follow-through sometimes falls short.

But hunger is not a problem the District can solve on its own. We need more federal funding for nutrition assistance programs — and for other anti-poverty programs as well.

With Congress riveted on deeper spending cuts, the best hope is that we don’t get less.


Nearly One In Five Americans Still Struggle With Hunger

March 27, 2011

The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center is one more indication that the recession is by no means over for a vast number of Americans.

In 2010, the nationwide food hardship rate was barely lower than in 2009 — 18%, as compared to 18.3%. In the other words, nearly one out of five people in this country sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

Things were worse at the end of 2008. But, for reasons as yet unexplained, the food hardship rate for the last quarter of 2010 was the highest since Congress passed the temporary increase in food stamp benefits in the first quarter of 2009.

As I’ve said before, “food hardship” is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture terms “food insecurity”.

A family is counted as having experienced food hardship if the member surveyed answers in the affirmative when asked, “Have there been times during the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy the food that you and your family needed?”

The new FRAC report is considerably more expansive than the update issued in January. It’s the organization’s second full analysis of data Gallup collects to use for a broader well-being index.

Unlike the survey the Census Bureau conducts for USDA, the Gallup sample is large enough to allow reasonably reliable breakouts by small geographic areas and also year-over-year comparisons at the state level.

This makes the report uniquely valuable in two ways.

First, it’s a fine advocacy tool because it provides food hardship rates for every Congressional district in the country. Want to tell your Representative to support the President’s proposed fix for the recent cutback in the food stamp boost? Cite the food hardship rate in your district.

Second, it lets us drill down below the nationwide figure in a variety of ways. We get figures not only for Congressional districts, but for each major region, each state and the District of Columbia and each of the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas, i.e., city-centered geographic areas defined for use by the Census Bureau and other federal statistical agencies.

So we learn, for example, that:

  • Food hardship rates are highest in the Southeast and Southwest. Indeed, 12 of the 20 states with the highest 2010 rates are in these regions.
  • Rates are at least 20% in 21 states, with Mississippi topping them all at nearly 29%.
  • Rates are 15% or higher in all but five states.
  • In no state is the rate below 10%.
  • Here in our nation’s capital, the rate is 18.9%, putting the District again in the middle of the state ranking.

In short, as the FRAC report says, “food hardship is a problem in every corner of America, and should be of concern to every member of Congress.”

Ah yes, but is it?

FRAC attributes the persistently high food hardship rates to the ongoing jobs crisis. As it notes, the 2010 U-6 rates — the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment — were generally comparable to those in 2009 and rose a bit toward the end of the year.

And even the U-6 measure understates the total number of jobless people who’d like to — and need to — work because it doesn’t include people who gave up looking more than a year ago.

But both the White House and Congress seem to have put the jobs crisis behind them. The hot debate is how much and where to cut spending. And, Republican assertions notwithstanding, spending cuts mean job losses.

The current spending-cut focus spells trouble for people who urgently need food assistance in other, more direct ways.

The continuing resolution the House passed in late February would cut funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) by about 10%. It would also cut funding for several other programs that help feed low-income people.

These cuts would theoretically be only temporary, since a new federal budget year begins on October 1. But they suggest that President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 proposals to address hunger and poor nutrition could face the chopping block.

Let’s hope all those members of Congress with high food hardship rates decide that three squares a day for the nearly 48 million poor people in this country are a better investment than, say, those still-unready, way-over-budget F-25 fighter planes.

UPDATE: Hope may spring eternal, but the Welfare Reform Act recently introduced by some House Republicans would, among other things, eliminate what remains of the funding to keep food stamp benefits at the higher level they’ve been since 2009, when the economic recovery act was passed.

Since this posting was first published, I’ve written another explaining why the bill threatens all safety net programs.


Food Hardship Rate Still Alarmingly High In DC, As In Almost All States

January 10, 2011

For the last year and a half, the Food Research and Action Center has been issuing periodic reports on food hardship in the U.S. Its latest update indicates that food hardship rates remain alarmingly high, though the national rate has dropped a bit since the July 2008-9 year.

This is also true for the District of Columbia. But according to FRAC, neither the national nor the District’s year-over-year declines are big enough to be statistically significant.

As I wrote in heralding FRAC’s first report, food hardship is relatively equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture terms “food insecurity.”

A household is counted as experiencing food hardship if a member answers in the affirmative when asked, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you and your family needed?”.

During the period January-June 2010:

  • More than 20% of responding households in 16 states had experienced food hardship.
  • Only five states had food hardship rates under 15% and only one state (North Dakota) a single-digit rate.
  • The rate for the District was nearly 18.3% — or well over one in every six households. As with the latest USDA figures, this puts the District midway between the highest and lowest state rates.

Comparing July-June figures for 2008 and 2009, FRAC finds that food hardship rates in five states increased enough to be statistically significant. The same number of states had statistically significant decreases.

So the best that can be said is that food hardship rates haven’t risen as much as one might expect, given the persistently high unemployment rate and continuing increases in both the rate and raw number of people in poverty.

What will happen in the upcoming year is an open question.

As FRAC President Jim Weill observes, “states will be facing many fiscal challenges,” as will the District. They surely can’t look to Congress for another round of temporary assistance.

Not with the new Republican House leadership promising $100 billion in spending cuts — some $50-$60 billion more than their Senate counterparts achieved by blocking a Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Not with their insistence that the stimulus spending in the economic recovery act “failed.”

Many economists are forecasting unemployment rates at or over 9% through 2011. Though many jobless workers will remain eligible for extended unemployment benefits, they’ll be getting less.

Then perhaps nothing. The President’s Council of Economic Advisers reportedly expects an additional 4 million to exceed the maximum weeks they’re entitled to.

Still, there are things that states and the District can do to address food hardship. As FRAC elsewhere suggests, they can make getting foods stamps easier and quicker while also doing a better job with outreach.

They can take advantage of provisions in the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act that expand opportunities to feed low-income children in and after school.

They can do something about low participation rates in subsidized summer meal programs — or in the District’s case, a relatively high rate that’s shrinking.

Perhaps they can also retool their workforce development programs to help more jobless workers secure stable living-wage employment.

Mayor Vincent Gray made this a keynote of his campaign. Now that he’s in office, let’s see what he and his new appointees do. From what I’ve heard, they could do quite a lot without a lot more spending.

That would be good for our economy and for thousands of our hungry neighbors too.


New Report Finds Hunger Nationwide–And Rampant Among DC Families With Children

January 28, 2010

Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues a report on food (in)security in the U.S. It tells us some important things. But it’s limited. The data are quite old by the time the report is issued. And the number of households surveyed is too small to permit much by way of reliable geographic breakouts.

Now the Food Research and Action Center has issued a first-ever detailed, up-to-date report on food hardship “in every corner of the U.S.” Food hardship here is roughly equivalent to USDA’s food insecurity–specifically, an affirmative response to the question, “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

The FRAC data come from a survey Gallop has been conducting every day since the beginning of January 2008. They’re current as of December 2009. And they reflect responses by more than 530,000 people (12 times as many as in the survey used for USDA’s latest report).

With such a large data set, FRAC has been able to provide reasonably reliable food hardship rates by calendar quarter, state, major metropolitan statistical area and Congressional district. As a political matter, the last may be most important because it puts the problem of hunger into the home base of virtually every member of Congress.

Here are some big-picture findings:

  • Food hardship rose in 2008–from 16.3% in the first quarter to 19.5% in the fourth quarter.* Of course, the big uptick here is linked to the rising unemployment rate. But the large increase in “food at home” prices was also a factor.
  • The food hardship rate declined somewhat in 2009, ending in the fourth quarter at 18.5%. FRAC attributes this in part to a drop in “food at home” prices, but mostly to other factors that offset the still-rising unemployment rate–increases in food stamp benefits, other provisions in the economic recovery act, policy changes that broadened food stamp eligibility and increased participation in all the major federal nutrition programs. In short, mostly the workings of the safety net.
  • Food hardship was a greater problem for households with children than for those without. In 2009, 24.1% of the former experienced food hardship, as compared to 14.9% of the latter.
  • Food hardship was a problem in every state. In 2009, the rate was over 10% in every state, over 15% in 43 states and over 20% in 17 states. For households with children, the 2008-9 rate was over 15% in every state and over 20% in 40 states.
  • Food hardship was also a problem in almost every Congressional district. The 2008-9 food hardship rate was under 10% in only 23 of the country’s 436 Congressional districts and at least 15% in 311 districts.

And what about the District of Columbia?

  • In 2009, the District’s overall food hardship rate was 20.8%–higher than in all but 14 states.
  • Both the District’s food hardship rate and its relative ranking worsened last year. In 2008, the overall rate was 17.6%–lower than all but 20 states.
  • The District had a higher rate of food hardship among families with children than any state–a shocking 40.8%. The highest ranking state was Mississippi, with 33.8%.

I don’t know what to say about figures like these that hasn’t been said before and better. So I’ll borrow from Congressman James McGovern (D-MA), co-chair of the Congressional Hunger Caucus. “Hunger is a political condition.”

We have the wealth to eliminate hunger. We’ve got a host of studies, pilot projects, best practices and proposals that tell us how to go about it. We know (or ought to know) that investments in reducing hunger more than pay for themselves–in lower health care, education and welfare costs and ultimately in greater economic productivity.

But do we have the political will to deal with food hardship now?

President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget proposed $10 billion over 10 years to strengthen the Child Nutrition Act–a down payment on his commitment to ending child hunger by 2015. But we haven’t heard much about this lately–or any hint that the food stamp increase in the economic recovery act should be extended.

The jobs creation bill the House passed will leave what the New York Times calls “a crater in the economy where the job market used to be.” And the Senate is taking its own sweet time with something even smaller.

Here in the District, we see budget cuts that have undermined the delivery of food stamps and other benefits–and possibly more cuts on the horizon. Still no word about when the Income Maintenance Administration will make the Food Stamp Expansion Act a reality.

So I’m not hopeful. But I hope to be proved wrong.

* Both these figures are higher than what USDA reported for food insecure households (14.6%).


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 171 other followers