About one in seven people in America — 46.5 million in all — depend, at least in part, on nonprofit feeding programs to stave off hunger. This is one of many, many things we can learn from Feeding America’s report on its latest survey of the agencies it helps supply and their clients.
These many, many things gel into different stories. I’ll focus on one of them here — the fact that in this very wealthy country of ours, a very large number of people can’t always afford to eat healthfully, SNAP (the food stamp program) notwithstanding.
But first a few words about the programs themselves. About two-thirds of the more than 58,000 programs that Feeding America helps supply through its food bank network provide groceries.
Most of the others provide foods already prepared. They include so-called soup kitchens, meals delivered to the homes of elderly and disabled people and food services for homeless shelters, other residential facilities, senior centers and daycare centers for children.
Some provide meals and/or snacks to kids who participate in after-school activities, either as their exclusive service or in addition to the aforementioned.
So the programs reach diverse people in diverse ways. Feeding America’s new report reflects responses from more than 60,000 of them.
Some Key Facts About Program Clients
In some respects, it’s hard to generalize about the beneficiaries of the feeding programs because, as I said, they’re a diverse group — and the report is chock-full of data points. For those of us who attend to the poverty dialogue, if we should call it that, a couple of things jump out.
More program clients are white than belong to any other race/ethnicity group — 43.4% of the total and nearly half of the prepared-meal recipients.
Among the adults, 72.5% have, at most, a high school diploma or the equivalent. But 20.5% have at least some college education — and 5.7% a four-year college degree or higher. Slightly over 10% were enrolled in school at the time the survey was conducted.
Nearly 54% of all clients lived in a household where someone was employed during the year. The percent is considerably higher — 70.6% — for households with children.
Yet unemployment and under-employment are clearly problems. Only 34.3% of households included any member who’d worked at least six months out of the last twelve. And only 43% included someone who’d worked at least 30 hours a week.
Both these percents are higher for households with children — 48.9% and 47% respectively. Yet obviously lack of paying work helps account for their food assistance needs.
Ongoing Financial Hardships
Several years ago, Feeding America reported that visits to food pantries had “become the new normal.” This is apparently still true. The number of times individuals and families received groceries and/or meals was well over eight times greater than the number served — 389.2 million over the course of a year.
What this tell us, of course, is that a great many weren’t coping with a one-time emergency. Both the employment figures and others indicate ongoing financial hardships.
About half of the households the grocery and meal programs served were officially poor, i.e. living below the federal poverty line. They include 11.7% who reported no income at all during the past twelve months.
An additional 33.2% had incomes between 101% and 185% of the FPL — the cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.
The median annual income for all households served was $9,175 — less than a fifth of the median for all U.S. households. The median for those with children was somewhat higher — $11,721. But because these households are larger, 77% lived below the FPL.
All but 6.8% of client households lived in what the report characterizes as a “nontemporary housing arrangement,” e.g., an apartment, a house they owned, were paying for or sharing.
But that doesn’t mean they were all stably housed. Nearly 27% had lived in at least two places during the past year. Somewhat over 22% started doubling-up with family members or someone else. And 15.5% had been foreclosed on or evicted within the last five years.
What About Food Stamps?
Notwithstanding their need for food assistance, only 54.8% of client households received SNAP benefits. This seems a low participation rate. And the survey data don’t altogether explain it.
The report suggests that some others might have had savings and/or other assets above the very low limit that some states still impose.
Some probably didn’t qualify because of their immigration status. Federal law bars not only undocumented immigrants, but most of those who’ve been in the country legally for less than five years.
It’s still the case that more households probably could have qualified for SNAP and for various reasons, chose not to apply. The benefits obviously wouldn’t have enabled all them to keep food on the table, however.
About 86% of the client households enrolled in SNAP reported that they use them up in three weeks or less. The same was true for 88.8% of the SNAP households with children.
Struggles, Even With the Feeding Programs
Large numbers of households had to make trade-offs between food and some other necessity — or perhaps multiple necessities.
For example, 57.1% reported having to choose between paying for food or for housing at least once during the prior year. Percents were considerably higher for other trade-offs — nearly 66% for medical care, 66.5% for transportation and 69.3% for utilities.
For many, these weren’t one-time hard choices. More than 30% reported making them every month, except for housing. And that percent wasn’t much lower.
These weren’t the only types of choices households made. Well over 78% — and 83.5% of those with children — reported buying “inexpensive, unhealthy food.” More than half reported knowingly eating food past its expiration date.
And 40% said they watered down food and/or drink. The percent is higher for households with children — 44.8%.
So there you have it — or rather, some select pieces of it. That we should have such hunger in America today is, to my mind, simply shameful — and a call to action on various fronts.