Hunger Struck More Families Last Year, USDA Reports

September 7, 2012

September is Hunger Action Month — a campaign launched by Feeding America to get us involved in efforts to help end hunger in this country.

And hunger there surely is, as the latest food (in)security report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

Last year, nearly 174.9 million households sometimes — or often — didn’t have the resources to buy the food that all members needed “for an active, healthy life.” These are households USDA classifies as food insecure.

There were more of them than in 2010, but the percent increase isn’t statistically significant, USDA says.

The bigger news, I think, is that the number of households with very low food security, i.e., those in which at least one member sometimes scrimped on meals or skipped them altogether, rose to more than 6.8 million — 5.7% of all households surveyed.

This is statistically significant. And it puts the very low food security rate back up to where it was during the recession we’re still recovering from.

All told, nearly 16.9 million people sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. For adults, in the main, this typically meant hunger during seven months of the year — and for a few days during each of these months.

Drilling down a bit, we see that:

  • Food insecurity afflicted 20.6% of households with children — nearly 8 million families.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in slightly under half these households — and actually experienced hunger in 374,000 of them.
  • Food insecurity rates were highest for single-mother families — 36.8% or more than 3.5 million families.
  • More than 1.1 million of them — 11.6% — were so food insecure as to fall into the generally recurrent hunger category.
  • Single-father households also had unusually high food insecurity rates — 24.9%. But there were far fewer of them.

The correlation with poverty is, of course, very high. So not surprisingly, we see significant race/ethnicity differences.

  • Among black households, 25.1% were food insecure, as compared to 11.4% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The very low food security, i.e., hunger, rate among black households was 10.5%, as compared to 4.6% for white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 26.% and the very low food security rate 8.3%.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in 14.6% of black households, as compared to 6.7% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The child food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 17.4%.

Well over 88% of food insecure households were poor enough to qualify for food stamps. The USDA report doesn’t tell us how many received them. It does, however, tell us how households below the program’s standard income eligibility ceiling fared.

On the one hand, a large majority managed to keep enough food on the table without food stamps for all of 2011.

The survey results don’t tell us how, though we might guess that free school meals played a part. Perhaps also the food pantries and other emergency sources that Feeding America’s network supplies.

On the other hand, nearly half (49.1%) of the households that received food stamps all year were nevertheless food insecure. And more than one in five (22.3%) were so food insecure that at least one member of the household didn’t always have enough — or anything — to eat.

The new Farm Bill the Senate passed would nevertheless reduce food stamp benefits for about half a million households.

The version pending in the House would do the same. It would also cut off all benefits for at least 1.8 million low-income people, plus free school meals for about 280,000 prospectively hungry children.

If we’re going to end hunger in America — a doable thing in this very wealthy country — the very least our elected representatives can do now is avoid making it worse.

Sad that anyone should have to say something so blatantly self-evident.


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.


Some Policy Lessons From USDA’s Food Security Report

September 21, 2011

No one, I suppose, needs to be reminded that public benefits programs are in the bull’s eye. Federal nutrition assistance programs are no exception

Funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) has been cut, and the House of Representatives has voted to trim it further. It’s approved cuts for other food assistance programs as well.

The House budget plan would also radically reduce funding for SNAP (the food stamp program) — this by converting it into a block grant.

And who knows what will happen when the Super Committee starts looking for budget savings to meet its $1.5 trillion target?

All these threats make the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest food security report especially timely.

Because the results tell us that the main federal nutrition assistance programs are working — not as well as they might, but well enough to keep hunger at bay in a very high percentage of low-income households.

In 2010, the percent of households that experienced food insecurity remained essentially flat — 14.5% as compared to 14.7% in 2009. The difference, USDA says, is not statistically significant.

What the rate means is that an estimated 85.5% of households had “enough food for an active, healthy life” for all members at all times during the year — virtually the same as in 2008, the first full year of our Great Recession.

This in itself is noteworthy.

More noteworthy is the fact that the percent of households experiencing very low food insecurity, i.e., those with such limited resources that some member(s) sometimes had to cut back on or altogether skip meals, dropped from 5.7% to 5.4%.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that the biggest declines were among households with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, i.e.,  households that could have been eligible for one or more of the main food assistance programs.

Those with children, for example, generally would have been eligible for WIC and/or free or reduced-price school meals. Their very low food security rate dropped from 2.9% to 2.1%.

This is hardly to say that all would be well if we could just protect the key nutrition assistance programs from the cost-cutting impulses of those in Congress who view federal “welfare” spending as a budget-busting failure.

Consider, for example, that food insecurity rates were less than half the 2010 rate for all three years before the recession set in. Or that barely more than half the households with incomes low enough to be eligible received food stamp benefits for any part of the year.

Of those that got them for the entire year, 49.3% still suffered from low or very low food security. So it seems reasonable to suppose that the benefits didn’t cover the costs of as much food as they needed.

And, indeed, we see that better-off households, i.e., those with incomes over 185% of the FPL, spent 30% more on food than the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket USDA uses to calculate food stamp benefits.

Households at the upper end of the eligibility range might have had resources to fill the gap. The poorer would probably have had to make do with less food than an “active, healthy life” requires.

Thus we see much higher food insecurity rates among populations with the highest poverty rates.

For example, the food insecurity rate for single mothers with children was 20.6% higher than the overall household rate. For black households, it was 10.6% higher and for Hispanic households, 11.7% higher.

Yet other data suggest that poverty alone may not account for disparities among food insecurity rates.

We see big differences among the three-year rates that USDA uses to compensate for relatively low state-level survey samples.

In 2008-10, the averages ranged from 19.4% in Mississippi and 18.8% in Texas (knew you’d want that one) to 7.1% in North Dakota. They don’t align neatly with differences in poverty rates.

The District of Columbia, for example, had higher poverty rates than the overall U.S. rates for the three-year period. Yet its average food insecurity rate was lower than the national average — 13% as compared to 14.6% nationwide. Its very low food security rate was also lower — 4.5% as compared to 5.6%.

The message here is that food security hinges in part on state and local policies. It’s hardly coincidental, I think, that USDA had to intervene in Texas because the government had made choices that created huge backlogs in food stamp applications.

The largest threats now, however, seem to be at the federal level. Spending cuts in nutrition programs will affect low-income people in every state. They’ll also further depress consumer demand — and thus cause more job losses.

Which will, of course, drive up the number of households that can’t afford to keep enough food on the table for a healthy life.


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.


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