What Map the Meal Says About Hunger In DC

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?

2 Responses to What Map the Meal Says About Hunger In DC

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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