More than 6,600 seniors in the District of Columbia will benefit from two sources of food assistance in the upcoming fiscal year.
But they wouldn’t have without a timely intervention by DC Hunger Solutions and all of us who signed its petition. Because the District failed to budget a relatively small amount to keep the assistance flowing.
Here’s the story, with what seems to be a happy ending.
The main source of food assistance that just got saved comes from the federal government under the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. As its name suggests, the program provides bulk processed and packaged foods, which local agencies then distribute to low-income residents.
Here in the District, as elsewhere, most of them are seniors with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.
They get monthly bags of nutritious foods worth about $52 each — a meaningful contribution to healthy eating for seniors who have to stretch very tight budgets in our high-cost city.
The other type of food assistance that was at risk comes from the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, also federally-funded. This program provides low-income seniors with coupons they can use to buy limited amounts of fresh produce and/or honey at local farmers’ markets.
The District limits the coupons to seniors who participate in the commodity food program and relies on the same administrative function to distribute them. Low-income seniors thus stood to lose an additional $30 per year in food assistance.
Why, you may ask, did the District have to come up with any money if the programs are federally funded?
The answer is that the federal funds don’t fully cover the District’s administrative costs.
More specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the commodities for the grocery bags, but only a fixed amount for administrative costs, based on each state’s projected caseload.
Here in the District, administrative costs exceed what the federal government provides. This, I’m told, is generally the case for states as well.
Grants for the farmers’ market coupons are based on a formula set by USDA. Agencies must spend at least 90% of their grant funds on reimbursements to farmers, market operators and the like for coupons used.
Here again they generally have to come up with some of their own funds to cover all the administrative costs.
The DC Department of Health has formal responsibility for administering the two programs. About 18 months ago, it decided to outsource the ongoing administrative tasks, e.g., verifying eligibility, distributing the groceries and coupons.
So it issued a grant to the Greater Washington Urban League, which was already operating a number of social services programs in the District, as well as in Prince Georges County, Maryland.
As with so many of these things, the District’s budget never had a line item for the grant. But funds were somehow found to renew it last year. These, if I understand correctly, covered about half the administrative costs and federal funds the remainder.
This year, the Urban League was told it would have to find another source for the administrative costs the District had paid for. It tried, but without success. So it notified its clients and volunteers that it would end its role in the program, effective September 30.
DOH apparently had no backup plan. Hence the urgent message from DC Hunger Solutions.
Well, Mayor Gray got the word — and sent out word to his people that he wants the programs continued.
E-mail from a top-level Executive Office appointee says “short-term solution” now, to be followed by “new management,” i.e., another nonprofit service provider.
So it seems that funds will be found to ensure that both the commodity food program and the farmers’ market coupon program will survive for another year.
And a good thing too. DC Hunger Solutions tells us that the small investment the District will make translates into about $4.1 million in food for low-income seniors who might otherwise go hungry — or at the very least, have to survive on a poorly-balanced diet.
Now, can someone in DOH explain why we had a near-crisis about this?
NOTE: I’m crediting — and I think rightly the work of DC Hunger Solutions and its allies, including petition signers. But it’s no coincidence that word of a solution went out shortly after Washington City Paper columnist Lydia DePillis put the issue in the public eye.
UPDATE: A followup posting delves into the final question above. It summarizes new information that’s been unearthed, as well as what we knew when I wrote this. As you’ll see, DOH still has some explaining to do.