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.


What Map the Meal Says About Hunger In DC

April 28, 2011

As I recently wrote, Feeding America’s Map the Meal project provides food insecurity data for every state in the U.S. Happily, researchers stretched the category to include the District of Columbia.

So here’s a brief summary of what we learn about hunger in the District. I use the term “hunger” because people are counted as food insecure when they say they didn’t always have the resources to buy the food they and their families needed. Seems to me that, at least some of the time, they were probably hungry — not just insecure about where the next meal would come from.

In 2009:

  • 15.8% of District residents — 93,180 — were food insecure. This is slightly below the nationwide 16.6% rate, but about 4% higher than the rates for either Virginia or Maryland and more than twice as high as the rates for nearby Arlington and Montgomery counties.
  • Only 63% of food insecure District residents were eligible for food stamps, even under the higher eligibility ceiling authorized in 2009.
  • The average per meal cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — the basis for calculating food stamp benefits — was 67 cents higher than the national average.
  • So it would have cost somewhat over $53 million to make up the “meal gap,” i.e., the cost of providing all food insecure residents with enough to eat year round.

A couple of thoughts about the fact that we’re looking at 2009 data.

First — and this would be true for most other jurisdictions as well — the unemployment rate was higher then. By the end of the year, it had risen to 11.9%. As of this January, it was down to 9.8%.

For this reason alone, it’s possible that the next round of food insecurity data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will show a somewhat lower rate.

More importantly, the Income Maintenance Administration, which administers the food stamp program in the District, hadn’t implemented the higher income eligibility standard or a related reform that gives some eligible residents larger benefits.

The Food Stamp Expansion Act, which authorizes the changes, was adopted in June 2009. IMA got around to implementing the part that raises the income eligibility ceiling in March 2010.

The part that provides higher benefits for some food stamp recipients may have been implemented now, but only because of a recent legal settlement secured by the Legal Aid Society and pro bono partners.

So the 2009 food insecurity rate for the District may be higher than it would have been if the responsible District agencies had felt as much urgency as hungry residents undoubtedly did.

Or maybe this is an unfair cheap shot. While the DC Council imposed new tasks on IMA, it also agreed to budget cuts that squeezed the agency’s core operations. Perhaps this accounts, at least in part, for the delay.

I remarked awhile ago, that District officials characteristically do a better job at adopting new progressive policies than at providing the resources to make sure that existing policies can achieve what they’re supposed to. The same apparently can be said for follow-through on new policies.

Low-income residents really shouldn’t have to rely on attorneys to get them the benefits they’re legally entitled to. The District may have budget constraints, but what about theirs?


New Insights Into Food Insecurity In The U.S.

April 21, 2011

Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report takes studies of food insecurity to the next level. It’s a unique, multi-faceted presentation of the problem that points to changes needed in both poverty measurement and federal anti-hunger policy.

The gap in the title refers to the estimated number of additional meals that people who said they couldn’t always afford to eat would have if they did. The methodology used to calculate the gap is somewhat complicated. So I’ll just refer those interested to the executive summary.

The map is online and interactive, with different shades of green indicating different food insecurity rates in counties across the U.S.

Mouse over it and you get statewide food insecurity rates, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food security report for 2009.

But that’s only the beginning. You also get:

  • The number of food insecure people.
  • The percentages of food insecurity in three different income bands based on eligibility ceilings for food stamps and for some other federal nutrition assistance programs like WIC.
  • The additional funds that would have been needed to provide everyone with enough to eat in 2009.
  • The average cost of a meal, based on USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket used to determine food stamp benefits.

And you can get these data in print-out form for every county and food bank service area in the country. Coming soon, I understand, will be the same data for each Congressional district.

All this detail yields some important insights.

  • Food insecurity is everywhere — not just in the states or areas within states that we’re accustomed to thinking of as poor.
  • A large percentage of food insecure people aren’t eligible for federal nutrition assistance programs — a nationwide average of 29% in 2009.
  • People may be food insecure even with food stamps in part because the Thrifty Food Plan market basket costs considerably more in some places than the average nationwide.
  • For somewhere around $22 billion a year we could provide everyone in the country with enough to eat.

The state and county-level information should help policymakers target their efforts. Also advocates, the  network of food banks that Feeding America supplies and the pantries, dining rooms and other programs that get food from the banks.

There are also several lessons — most not new — for policymakers at the federal level.

First off, we urgently need a final, more realistic poverty measure. How can a family be well above the federal poverty line if they can’t afford enough to eat?

But the new poverty measure shouldn’t just be, as now envisioned, an alternative tool for analysis and program assessment. It should be used to define income eligibility criteria for public assistance like food stamps.

Yes, this would be politically dicey. But there’s something fundamentally wrong when more than 14.5 million food insecure people couldn’t qualify for federal food assistance because they were too far above the poverty line that will still be used as a cut-off when the new measure is published.

Yet even many people in the food stamp program now report food insecurity. The latest USDA figures are yet more evidence that the way food stamp benefits are calculated should be changed.

The Food Research and Action Center has recommended ditching the Thrifty Food Plan in favor of USDA’s lowest-cost food budget for normal use. Also cutting the time lag for the annual inflation adjustment so that benefits don’t reflect food prices from as much as 16 months earlier.

Even these relatively modest changes would entail some additional costs. But if the Feeding America meal-gap closing figure is anywhere in the ballpark, the funds needed would be a miniscule fraction of the total federal budget.

Most immediately, Congress should restore at least the $2.2 billion it took from the food stamp budget last December, as the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget for USDA proposes.

Recall that this would still leave the program shy the $11.9 billion that was cut to help pay for last summer’s whittled-down jobs bill.

Will Congress take this minimal step to keep more people from going hungry? Your guess is as good as mine.

But given the current spending cut battle on Capitol Hill, the prospects don’t look rosy.


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.


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