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.”


Food Stamp Benefits Too Low for a Healthy Diet, New Study Confirms

February 2, 2012

In 2008, Children’s HealthWatch and partners reported on a unique study aimed at finding out whether food stamp benefits enable low-income families to buy what they need for a healthy diet. Now we’ve got a followup.

The answer now, as before is no. And though the followup was conducted only in Philadelphia, the findings are generally applicable to other urban areas, including the District of Columbia.

For both studies, Children’s HealthWatch developed a shopping list based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan — the current basis for setting the maximum value of food stamps.

Then a couple of trained graduate students went to stores of various sizes in four low-income neighborhoods. They collected prices for the items on the shopping list and noted items that weren’t available.

Not surprisingly, small stores didn’t stock anything close to the TFP market basket.* An average of 50% of the items were missing — mostly fresh fruits and vegetables and other “healthy, nutrient rich foods.” Even medium-sized stores stocked, on average, only two-thirds.

But, in a way, what was on the shelves (or not) didn’t matter because food stamp benefits wouldn’t have covered the costs of the TFP items.

A family of four with the maximum benefit would have been short an average of $196 per month. In other words, it would have had to come up with $2,352 per year to eat according to the TFP that met its nutritional needs.

Shortfalls were considerably higher for families who have to rely on nearby small stores — $251 per month or more than $3,300 a year for the family of four.

Recall that the current maximum food stamp benefit reflects the 13.6% boost Congress passed as part of the Recovery Act. Without it, the family of four would have been short an average of $276 per month or somewhat over $3,300 per year.

This is clearly more than a low-income family can afford. Even now, as one the Drexel University’s Witnesses to Hunger says, “The amount we get for three meals a day is not cutting it …. [W]e have to eat unhealthy food.”

The food stamp boost is due to end in November 2013 rather than, as originally expected, some five or so years later. Congress foreshortened its life to offset the costs of some other measures.

Congress could, of course, restore the funds it raided, thus giving the food stamp program enough to pay for the boost until the inflation-adjusted cost of the TFP yielded the same results.

Children’s HealthWatch recommends this. The Food Research and Action Center is campaigning for it as well.

Yet there’d still be a shortfall — at least for a great many families in urban areas. Children’s HealthWatch mentions families in rural communities as well.

The root cause here is the way food stamp benefits are calculated, i.e., costs of the items in the TFP, adjusted annually for nationwide price increases.

FRAC recommended some time ago that food stamp benefits be based on USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan. This plan, it said, is “the lowest of the three government budgets for normal use” and “generally in line with what low and moderate-income families report they need to spend.”

Children’s HealthWatch says the food plan switch should be considered — specifically to more accurately reflect food costs in areas where they’re higher than nationwide averages.

The Low-Cost Food plan now costs, on average, about 23% more than the TFP. This is considerably less than all but the poorest households spend.

The latest food security survey for USDA found that households with incomes above 185% of the federal poverty line — then about $40,790 a year for a family of four — spent 30% more than the TFP created for their size and configuration.

That’s just 1% more than the average shortfall the Children’s HealthWatch researchers found.

The food stamp program is due for reauthorization this year, along with the rest of the complex and controversial Farm Bill. Highly doubtful that Congress will even try to enact a revised law until some time after the elections.

But it’s still good to get the fundamental benefits issues on the radar screen — and keep them there in as many ways as we can.

I, for one, would like to see mystery shoppers armed with TFP grocery lists prowling corner stores and supermarkets all over the country.

* Each of USDA’s food plans is actually 15 different market baskets specifying types and quantities of food for different age and gender groups, plus two each for families of two and four members. The ChildrensWatch shopping list was apparently based on one of the market baskets for a family with two adults and two children.


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