Progress Perhaps, But a Long Way to Go Before Every Kid Healthy

April 18, 2016

This is Every Kid Healthy Week, invented to celebrate what schools are doing to turn out healthy kids. Would that every kid were healthy — or even that schools could make them all so.

Not saying schools can’t do a lot, mind you. They can, for example, schedule daily physical activities and offer after-school and summer sports programs.

They can include nutrition in their curricula and get kids interested in healthful foods, e.g., by having gardens where they can plant and tend vegetables. And they can, of course, serve nutritious meals, even if Congress lets them off the hook somewhat.

They can also, in many cases, help ensure that kids who need those meals most actually get them by taking advantage of a new option called community eligibility. And a growing number of schools are.

That’s the good news. The bad news, also delivered shortly before this celebratory week, is that many children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood are more likely to suffer toxic effects because they don’t get enough of the right kinds of things to eat. And no real news, alas, from Congress.

Free School Meals for More Poor Kids

Schools ordinarily require parents to apply for free or reduced-price meals for their children — and to reapply every year. This, needless to say, is a barrier, especially for parents who don’t read well and/or fear scrutiny by bureaucrats.

Schools must bypass this process for children whose families receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits. They may also directly certify children who receive certain other federal benefits, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

They can do this, however, only if their computer system links to systems in other agencies and can perform data matches. For this and perhaps other reasons, they missed well over one in five eligible children in 2013-14, the latest year we have figures for.

The newest version of the Child Nutrition Act gives some schools another option that eliminates not only the application and technology barriers, but another — the stigma low-income children feel if they go to the cafeteria.

Schools with at least 40% of children who automatically qualify for free school meals may opt for community eligibility. In other words, they can expand eligibility for free school meals to the entire student community.

Last year was only the second that all high-poverty schools could seize this opportunity. More did, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research and Action Center report.

Just over half of all schools that could had adopted community eligibility by the end of the school year. A lot of variation, as one might guess.

The District of Columbia reached 87%, second only to North Dakota. Less than a quarter of high-poverty schools in 10 states were adopters. But almost all states had more schools participating than during the first year when what had been a pilot program became an option nationwide.

Higher Lead Poisoning Risks Due to Poor Nutrition

We’re all familiar now with exposure to lead poisoning — from water, as in Flint, Michigan, which put the problem on the public radar screen, and from other sources, e.g., paint, contaminated soil.

And we’re familiar with the lifelong damages that lead in the body can cause, especially in young children, and with the fact that alarming numbers of those tested have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.

These children are only the tip of the iceberg because states don’t test all children for lead poisoning — even apparently all children at high risk. But what we do know indicates that it’s far more common among children in high-poverty communities — presumably then among poor and near-poor children.

Certain vitamins and minerals can reduce lead absorption and/or the toxic effects of lead absorbed. So a well-balanced diet does even more for children’s health than what’s commonly said.

Looked at the other way, children at high risk of lead exposure are also at higher risk for harmful health effects because the foods they’re served at home are less likely to deliver enough of the protective nutrients.

The Urban Institute tries to show an actual link by focusing on a subset of high-poverty counties — those that tested at least 1,000 children and found at least 5% with blood lead levels over the Center for Disease Control’s high-risk threshold.

The five with the highest test results also had child food insecurity rates above the very high national average, it reports. Most of the rest of the counties it sampled had higher than average rates too.

So, wrapping back around, high-poverty schools have an extra incentive, were one needed, to opt for community eligibility.

What Only Congress Can Do, But Isn’t

Community eligibility can do only so much. Many low-income children are too young for even kindergarten, of course. They’ll need well-balanced meals and snacks in daycare programs.

School-age children will need the same during summer months, when their families now often have to stretch their too-low SNAP benefits to feed them as many as 10 extra meals a week.

The Urban Institute draws the connection. Only Congress can expand and strengthen the programs that are supposed to prevent hunger and malnutrition among low-income children.

It’s again let the umbrella for these programs — the Child Nutrition Act — expire, though it’s given the current law a brief extension.

The Senate has had a pretty good bill to reauthorize the CNA pending since late January. But the Majority Leader seems more preoccupied with the Supreme Court vacancy — and with proving that he and his Republican colleagues can get something done.

Don’t even look to the House, which is apparently looking to the Senate to pass its version of the CNA. It will, of course, have to vote on a bill sooner or later.

Seems that action there could, among other things, roll back progress on community eligibility, since the draft committee bill would raise the opt-in threshold to 60% of poor and near-poor students.

Action to help Flint get the lead out of its water — and to prevent more such crises — seems stalled too, by one lone Senator, who asserts that Michigan has plenty of money.

No concern about lead poisoning elsewhere, but rather that his colleagues would just “funnel taxpayer money to their own home states,” as if they don’t have corroding lead water pipes too.

More concern on the part of the Majority Leader to protect a dubious Senate custom than endangered children, it seemsĀ  — or perhaps more to prevent another intra-party rift.

Too soon to say how any of this will ultimately pan out. But it’s clear that Every Kid Healthy Week is a bittersweet occasion.

 


Children’s Doctors Prescribe Good Food … and Enough of It

March 3, 2016

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on children and food security some months ago. Took me awhile to get to it, but better late than never, I think, because the statement is important for several reasons — and still timely, also for several reasons.

Voice of Authority

First off and most obvious, the AAP has unusual credibility — and in some quarters, influence — as a voice for children’s well-being. It’s the professional association for some 64,000 doctors who provide primary care and specialized services to children and young adults.

It’s nonpartisan, of course, and apparently free from the conflicts of interest that can shape research and policy, including support from corporations who’ll profit more — or less — from nutrition policies, guidelines and the like. (You who’ve been following the debate over school meal nutrition standards know why I mention them.)

Big Picture From Research

The policy statement pulls together findings from reliable research on how food insecurity affects children. Some are familiar to anyone who follows anti-hunger campaigns, even casually — poorer overall health, more hospital stays, high risks of obesity, learning problems, etc.

Others are perhaps less so. For example, the shame kids feel when they see their parents eating less so they can have enough. Also the fear they’ll be labeled “poor” and shunned by their peers.

Feelings like these probably stem from the all-too-common view that poverty reflects a failure of personal responsibility. Perhaps doctors — highly respected folks who’ve surely demonstrated personal responsibility — could lend their weight to a culture shift.

Call to Action

The AAP enjoins pediatricians to advocate for federal and local policies that help ensure food security for all children and their families. It notes specifically sufficient funding for SNAP (the food stamp program) and the Child Nutrition Act programs.

It also calls for advocacy to keep foods offered in these programs “high in nutrient quality,” according to “sound nutrition science.” Respected voices needed here.

Congress has already enabled schools to get temporary waivers from two school meal nutrition requirements — a switch to use of only whole-grain food products and a gradual reduction in the total amount of sodium in the breakfasts and lunches they serve.

Now the Senate Agriculture Committee has completed a revised CNA — one of those bipartisan compromises that gives schools some flexibility on the whole grains and sodium, but not a free pass.

But we may see further compromises in the “high nutrient quality” of the meals schools serve. A bill introduced by one of the Republican members of the House subcommittee responsible for the CNA would go further toward “reducing federal mandates,” as its title proclaims. No caps at all on calories or grains, for example.

So the call is especially timely. But it’s also forward-looking because USDA will presumably review the nutrition standards and related meal plans for daycare facilities, as well as school meals now that we have new Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

At the local level, pediatricians have several advocacy opportunities. They obviously could — and should — discourage schools districts from relaxing their efforts to serve meals as healthful as the current standards require.

They could also encourage more school districts to opt for community eligibility. Schools with relatively high percents of poor and near-poor students could then serve free meals to all, regardless of their family’s income.

This, among other things, has increased the number of students served two full, well-balanced meals a day — probably in part by removing fear of the free-meal stigma.

Broader Approach to Children’s Healthcare

The AAP statement reaches furthest, I think, in its recommendations for incorporating food insecurity into pediatrics training and practices. Children’s doctors would then not only understand how it affects their patients’ health, but actually do something about it.

The AAP recommends a routine screening, using a pared-down version of the survey used for USDA’s annual food security reports.

Pediatricians, like other doctors, need the information in part to understand what the source of their patients’ problems might be — anemia, for example, chronic anxiety, both overweight and underweight.

They also need it to make sure parents can follow instructions. Pills should be taken three times a day with food. Well, will there be food in the house?

Beyond this, however, the AAP wants pediatricians to become familiar with food assistance sources in the community so they can make referrals. It envisions the screening and readiness to link families in need as a regular part of medical education.

And beyond this, it alludes to specialized training that has led to partnerships between pediatrics clinics and both social workers and pro bono attorneys.

Attorneys supplied by law firms and legal aid societies have helped parents resolve diverse problems that directly and indirectly affect their children’s health, e.g., loss of benefits they’re entitled too, substandard housing, unmet needs for special education.

This broader approach to children’s health recalls the nonprofit I’ve blogged on that partners with hospitals and clinics to secure and fill “prescriptions” for more healthful and secure living conditions.

The AAP’s recommendation could, in the best of worlds, expand the project model to a major sector of our healthcare system, shifting its focus from care to health, as the project’s founder intends.

There’d be ripple effects beyond the immediate health of children. Better health and better economic prospects for them as adults. Better health for their parents too.

Still not the be-all and end-all. The food insecurity pediatricians would identify, the further needs social workers would surface and make referrals for, the problems attorneys would tackle are all rooted in poverty — the “causes of causes,” as we’re told epidemiologists refer to it.

We’re not going to cure poverty by ensuring that malnourished children have enough of the right kinds of things to eat and a warm, mold-free place to live. But having many thousands more widely respected, vocal champions could make a difference.

 


Obama Wants to Do More About Summer Hunger Too

February 8, 2016

As I was polishing off my post on how the Senate Agriculture Committee went at the problem of summer hunger, the White House previewed two child nutrition initiatives in the budget the President will soon propose. One is a more expansive version of the electronic benefits transfer option.

As I’ve said, the Senate Ag Committee’s version of a new Child Nutrition Act would have the U.S. Department of Agriculture distribute a limited number of EBT cards for summer food purchases to a limited number of states.

Some limited number of families in those states would get cards loaded with $30 per month, per eligible child, i.e., one who’s eligible for free or reduced-price meals during the school year. By 2020, families with a total of no more than 285,000 such children would have the cards.

Roughly 22 million children now get free or reduced-price school meals. Some of them can get free summer meals and/or snacks through an existing program the Ag Committee seeks to expand. So it’s hard to know how much the EBT complement would reduce summer hunger.

This much we do know. The bill would provide a total of $150 million from Fiscal Year 2018 through Fiscal Year 2020. USDA could then spend any money left over until it was gone. End of the EBT option then, unless a future Congress extends it.

The President’s plan would create a permanent summer EBT card program. His proposed budget would provide $12 billion over the 10-year window generally used to cost out federal spending proposals.

The program would phase in, beginning in the summer of 2017. Families with a total of nearly a million children would get a food budget boost then, according to a USDA fact sheet.

This is roughly four times as many as would initially benefit under the Ag Committee’s bill. Nine years later, when all states could participate, the number of children benefited would increase to nearly 20 million.

Families would initially get $45 a month per eligible child. The fact sheet uses the same definition of eligibility as the Ag Committee’s bill — at least so far as family income is concerned. The maximum would be 185% of the federal poverty line — roughly $37,300 a year for a single parent/two-child family if the program existed today.

We’ll need to see the budget to know how much further the proposals track — or perhaps rules, if Congress adopted the President’s. Big if.

The summer EBT card initiative is one of those evidence-based solutions we’re enjoined to favor. USDA conducted a two-year pilot, testing several variations.

Experts from three independent consulting firms found, among other things, that the cards led to “a substantial reduction” in very low food security — roughly equivalent to out-and-out hunger for at least one family member, at least some of the time.

The cards prevented such dire food insecurity for about a third of the children whose families received them. And the children generally ate more healthfully too.

A higher benefit than now proposed reduced food insecurity at the household level, i.e., among the adults as well as the children. This, USDA says, shows that parents used the extra food-purchasing money to meet the children’s “most severe needs” — rather, one notes, than easing hunger somewhat for themselves as well.

Splitting the difference between the higher and lower benefits tested, as the proposed budget will, leaves them at risk of summer hunger.

But for the time being, our federal policymakers have decided to focus on child nutrition. And there are good and proper reasons for that, if one must choose. A plethora of research documents the diverse harms children suffer from hunger and poor diets.

So it’s good to see strong bipartisan support for a better Child Nutrition Act in the Senate Agriculture Committee. And good to see the President apparently ready to sign the bill, should it come to him.

Good as well to see him trying to move policy further on child hunger — and not only during the summer. He’ll propose an expanded automatic enrollment process for free and reduced-price meals during the school year too.

Will leave such details as we’ve got to the White House announcement — at least, for the time being.

 

 


On Snow, Charitable Giving and Need

February 4, 2016

Can’t altogether put the big snowstorm behind me. For one thing, the city left the hard-packed drift behind my car. But that’s not what I want to write about. On the contrary. It’s why I wasn’t snowed in and anxious as all get-out.

Even before the snow stopped, I could open my front door, where it tends to pile up, and walk safely to my gate. One of my neighbors shoveled my steps and front walk twice during the storm and again the following day. Cleared the sidewalk in front too.

His wife had made a first pass at the walk as night fell — and snow swirled. She’d called in the morning to find out if I needed anything and again the next day. I mentioned my worries about a power outage.

Well, I should come over to their house, since they’d have a fire going. And power loss or no, would I like to join them for dinner?

Now, these are people I don’t know well — just neighbors whom I chat with when we chance to see one another. But they went out of their way to care for my most critical need — and to let me know they cared.

So did total strangers.

When the snow finally stopped and the sun came out, I decided I should start unburying my car. I knew I didn’t have to strength to do it all at once. (It was barely distinguishable from the drafts fore and aft.) So I planned to do it in stages.

Three young men in a truck pulled over and asked whether I’d like help. I told them I couldn’t pay them unless they’d accept a check. (I’d realized only after the storm started that my provisioning had omitted a trip to the ATM.)

No check wanted. They just pulled out their shovels and dug for awhile — enough so I could get into the car and out of my parking space should I dare to drive. (I didn’t.)

But I returned to the car task the following day. Up walked another young man. Could he help? He didn’t want to be paid, he assured me.

And he would have gone on digging even longer than he did if I hadn’t said we should call it quits — this so I could retreat to the house and get blood flowing in my fingers.

Reflecting on my snow days experience, I’m struck — and moved — by how charitable these people were. That’s the word that pops to mind when I retell the story to myself.

We’re accustomed to seeing it in the phrase “charitable giving” or its kindred “charitable gift.” These , of course, refer to donations of money or things of value to organizations that, in this country, have registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(3)(c)s.

But the word came into our language, through French, from the Latin caritas. Long before it migrated, it had come to mean selfless love for one’s fellow beings — the feeling that inspires caring acts, including giving alms to the poor.

But the love, not the donations was what qualified charity as a Christian virtue — in some Biblical texts and later teachings the greatest.

I’m not trying to convert my snow story into a sermon. I do, however, think there’s a lesson about giving and need.

We see people in need every day — and know about many more through our media sources, advertisements and the solicitations we receive, especially toward the end of each tax year.

Some of us may give money directly to people who ask for it as we pass them by on the street. I doubt many of us give to everyone who asks, though I’ve only my own conduct and what I see as evidence.

We who’ve got the wherewithal tend to respond to the needs of those we only read or hear about by charitable giving in the usual sense. But we, the American public, split when it comes to public policies. If we didn’t, we’d have a quite different set — and different elected officials making them.

Consider, for example, SNAP (the food stamp program). It’s supposed to address needs for food that poor and near-poor people can’t otherwise afford.

But as you read this, more than a million people are near to losing their SNAP benefits because they’re able-bodied, have no dependents living with them and can’t meet the work requirements Congress imposed when it ended welfare as we knew it. “Can’t” is the proper word here, given the barriers they face.

Conservatives like work requirements. And we don’t see much pushback from progressives — at least, not as a matter of principle. Trouble is poor people need cash or near-cash assistance to survive.

Now I’m not ready to argue that we should give free food, housing and the like to work-able people who purportedly laze about in comfortable hammocks.

But who believes that any able-bodied (and minded) adult without dependents would choose not to work at least half-time or participate in a job training program because s/he could get some free food — less than $2.00 per meal, on average?

We’ve got a modern-day version of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Those who don’t work or prepare for work in some specified way can’t have their basic needs met — unless they’re too young, too old or too severely disabled.

Few basic needs met for the too young, however, unless their state exempts them from the five-year, lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. Most states don’t.

Returning — thought I never would, didn’t you? — to me and the snow days. No one who helped me had decided I was a worthy sort. No one tried to ascertain whether I’d put my back into shoveling out.

They simply felt a charitable calling. Surely we could have more of that in our public policies without jeopardizing the work ethic of our poor fellow creatures.


What the Revamped Child Nutrition Act Would Do About Summer Hunger

February 1, 2016

Picking up where I left off, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s new version of the Child Nutrition Act seeks to close — or at least, narrow — current gaps that can leave low-income children without enough nutritious food.

One opens every summer, when the school year ends. No more free meals five days a week. No more free snacks in after-school programs. And SNAP (food stamp) benefits don’t increase to cover a family’s extra costs.

Summer Hunger in the Child Nutrition Act

The CNA has a double-pronged approach to summer hunger. One prong allows schools that serve meals to kids in summer classes to tap their regular reimbursement source.

The other — the Summer Food Service Program — will reimburse schools, other government agencies and nonprofits for meals and/or snacks they serve at sites in low-income areas, i.e., those where at least half the kids are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

All kids eat for free. So there’s not the same stigma some poor and near-poor children feel when they queue up in the cafeteria during the school year. And participating organizations may offer a variety of activities — sports, for example, or computer training — that attract kids, regardless of income.

The program nevertheless reaches only a fraction of children who benefit from free or reduced-price lunches during the school year — just 16.2% in 2014.

Various reasons for this — some more amenable to policy solutions than others. But the Senate Ag Committee clearly has considered what more federal policies might do.

What the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Bill Would Do

The bill goes at the summer hunger problem in three different ways. First, it would allow some sites to serve meals kids can eat at home, though the program usually requires “congregate feeding.”

That would help in rural areas, where sites are often widely scattered and hard to get to. Other communities with extremely high rates of poor and near-poor children could also opt for off-site meals, however.

The exception would also help prevent hunger when children can’t or won’t go to a site every day, as they usually do — when it’s extremely hot, for example.

Second, the bill takes a stab at simplifying administration for non-school sponsors that offer both after-school and summer programs. They now have to do all the paperwork for each separately and comply with two different sets of standards.

The bill would phase in a fused option, beginning with seven states in 2017 and in the far distant future covering all 50, plus the District of Columbia and other entities the law treats as states.

Third, the bill would create a limited option to the summer feeding program. States could issue electronic benefits transfer cards, loaded with $30 per month, per child to some parents.

Not all states could opt in, however. Nor could the states the U.S. Department of Agriculture chooses get enough cards for all kids who, for one reason or another, don’t get fed through a site-based program.

The bill restricts the option to states in compliance with a provision in the prior CNA that requires them to use EBT cards for WIC, instead of paper coupons by 2020. The Food Research and Action Center understands this to mean that states must have converted to the cards.*

Only 15 reportedly had, as of last October. But the option wouldn’t kick in until 2018. When it did, only a fraction of potentially eligible children would benefit — 235,000 then and 50,000 more in 2020.

Some of you may recall a bill introduced last year that would have made the summer EBT card option available nationwide and given families significantly more money for food — five times as much initially.

As I remarked at the time, the offset the bill proposed virtually assured it would go nowhere. And the felt need for an offset may account for the stripped down version we see now.

Much as we might like to see something akin to the earlier proposal, we know the gain could have come at a high cost, especially because the Senate Ag Committee apparently felt it had to find the pay-for within the food assistance area.

When Congress last reauthorized the CNA, it paid for nearly half the additional costs by curtailing the SNAP boost that was part of the Recovery Act. That, plus an earlier pay-for cut benefits for all recipients, including about 22 million children.

We perhaps then shouldn’t feel too disgruntled at the limited steps toward ending summer hunger. As with the broader subsidies to feed children in daycare, a step forward now could mean another step in the future.

One of those hope springeth eternal moments for this blog. The new CNA bill has quite a ways to go before it can have any effect on child nutrition. And, of course, we’ve no idea how the next Congress to look at the issues will net out. Still ….

* FRAC has been extensively and intensively involved in the reauthorization process. So we can, I think, feel confident that this is what the drafter intend.

 


Senate Committee Clears New, Promising Child Nutrition Act

January 28, 2016

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a new version of the Child Nutrition Act last week. Some positive changes. Some not so hot. But the good far outweighs the not-so, I think.

Basically, the bill would do more to help ensure that low-income children have enough nutritious food to eat when they’re not in school — because they’re too young, because school has let out for the day and or because it’s summertime.

The bill could have gone further, but it paves the way for stronger measures in the next CNA — or perhaps even sooner. And happily, it doesn’t go further to water down the nutritious standards for meals children get when they are in school.

The bill has many parts. And even just those I’ve highlighted have parts. So I’m going to deal here with only the first two and the compromise that barely compromises the nutrition standards. Summer meals to follow soon.

Preschool-Age Children

WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for Women, Infants and Children) has long provided, as its name suggests, a cash-equivalent income supplement that enables pregnant women and mothers of young children to buy foods and beverages that they and their kids might otherwise not get enough of.

The benefit has thus far supplemented the diets of children until they’re five years old. By the time they’re six, they’ll be in elementary school and thus eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — and most of them for breakfasts too.

But, as you see, there’s often a gap. The Senate Ag Committee’s bill would close it by extending eligibility for WIC to age six, except for children in full-day kindergarten programs — and thus presumably fed at no or little cost to their parents.

Children in Childcare Programs

Now, some of those preschoolers spend most of their days — and perhaps part of their evenings — in a childcare center or home-based childcare program. Likewise older children whose parents work late shifts and/or weekends.

Trouble is kids get hungry. And young kids tend to get hungry often because they don’t eat all that much at any one time.

Yet the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which subsidizes meals and snacks served by some of those centers and home-based programs, has reimbursed for no more than two meals and a snack per day.

The Senate Ag Committee’s bill would allow reimbursements for two snacks, as well as two meals for children in programs for at least nine hours a day and no older than twelve.

And residential childcare programs would get reimbursed for three meals a day. These, as you’d guess, are live-in programs, generally for children who’ve been taken away from their parents.

At this point, their reimbursements come only from the program that reimburses regular public and private nonprofit schools for breakfasts and lunches. The Senate Ag Committee bill would enable them to also participate in CACFP — hence, the third meal.

Ideally, CACFP would reimburse all eligible childcare programs for three full meals, as it did before Congress cut its budget during the Reagan administration. Still, a step in the right direction.

Children During the School Day

The CNA authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture to at least partially reimburse public and private nonprofit elementary and secondary schools for the meals they serve. They in turn must serve meals that meet USDA’s nutrition standards.

The current CNA directed the agency to update the standards. And so it did, relying largely on recommendations from experts at the Institute of Medicine.

As I’ve mentioned before, the School Nutrition Association raised a big fuss over some of the new requirements. Soaring costs, heavier administrative burdens, losses because kids didn’t buy the meals any more, waste because those that did tossed the fruits and vegetables.

The Association sought more “flexibility,” including a rollback to the standards that required only half the pasta, bread and other “grain-rich” foods to be whole grain, rather than all. It also wanted an indefinite pause in the schedule for reducing sodium content.

The Senate Ag Committee bill grants neither. Nor does it heed the Association’s seemingly reasonable request for increased reimbursement rates to cover the costs of serving more nutritious meals.

The bill would instead allow schools a 20% exemption from the whole grain requirement. And schools would get an extra two years to meet their next sodium reduction target. A study would then determine whether the third and final target should kick in.

No reimbursement rate increase whatever. But another compromise could enable schools to gain more revenue from the foods they sell in so-called a la carte lines, where kids can pick and choose. Not a sure thing, but a working group to assess the current restrictions.

The Association seems relatively content with the compromises. We, I think, should view them as an okay deal too. The Ag Committee could, after all, have folded in a bill, sponsored by two of its members, that gave the Association exactly the grains and sodium changes it wanted.

About 30.5 million children eat lunches subject to the nutrition standards. More than 72% of them live in poor or near-poor families — those whose incomes make serving enough healthful foods unusually challenging.

What the kids eat at school can help ensure that their diets overall supply the nutrients they need. And both research and practical experience suggest they learn to like those fruits, veggies, whole wheat rolls, etc.

Good not only for their bodies, but for their abilities to learn during classroom time. Perhaps the rest of the time and beyond school years too.

NOTE: I’m indebted to the Food Research and Action Center for its overview of the bill. Opinions and any errors are my own.

 

 

 


Recent Report Misreports Homelessness and Hunger in DC

January 14, 2016

Each year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports the results of a hunger and homelessness survey it takes of a subset of its member cities. Twenty-two responded last year, including the District of Columbia.

Past experience has made me wary of figures reported for the District. At least one key hunger figure got mangled several years ago, as I belatedly learned.

This time, I found key homelessness figures downright perplexing because they bore no resemblance to what the one-night count found — or for that matter, to anything else I’d read or heard about.

So I checked the figures with the Department of Human Services, which files the survey responses, based on what it receives from the Community Partnership to End Homelessness and the Capital Area Food Bank. Also checked directly with CAFB.

And sure ‘nough, something(s) got lost in translation, to put it kindly. Niggling about the figures may seem just a wonkish gotcha. But the USCM report does get cited by reporters, columnists and us social media types.

So I’m going to set the record straight, best as I can.

More Recorded As Served, Not Necessarily More Homeless

The USCM reports that the number of homeless families in the District increased by 60% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of homeless individuals by 11%.

Well, the increases actually reflect numbers served by programs funded at least partly by DHS — this courtesy of Dora Taylor, the agency’s public information officer, who herself seemed rather taken aback.

“Served” here means people generally got some form of assistance — not necessarily what they asked for or needed, but something that caused an intake worker to enter a record for them in the homeless information management system that the Community Partnership maintains to comply with federal requirements.

As Taylor suggested, the misreported homeless family increase may in part reflect the administration’s decision to open shelter doors to newly-homeless families year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days.

They didn’t all gain shelter, however. Services recorded include, for example, what’s referred to as “diversion” — usually an intake worker’s finding a friend or relative the family could stay with, however briefly.

Whatever the services, the reported increase seems far greater than what the welcome policy change can account for. Recall that it was intended partly to ease the annual crush at the intake center when winter set in.

I got nothing from DHS to help explain the reported uptick in homeless individuals. So I’ll just tee up two related hypotheses.

The HIMS probably had more records for singles because DHS and nonprofit partners had become convenient one-stop-shops of sorts — and still are. Caseworkers assess and then link singles to some form(s) of aid. All those assessed become part of the system, if they’re not in it already.

It’s also possible that more homeless singles chose to seek help because they’d heard that they had a better chance of getting affordable housing — time-limited for some and permanent, i.e., indefinite-term, with supportive services for those deemed chronically homeless.

More Requests for Help in Finding Free Food, Not Necessarily Increased Need

The USCM reports that requests for food assistance in the District increased, though not by how much. Still disturbing if requests reflect need.

They don’t. CAFB has no way to track the number of people who seek free groceries and/or meals. So it supplied a figure reflecting the increase in calls to its hotline, which makes referrals to nonprofits it helps supply.

As my CAFB contact remarks, the increase may reflect, at least in part the fact that more people in need know about the hotline. Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of residents who can’t afford to feed themselves and family members — only that we don’t know whether we’ve got more (or fewer).

Unmet Food Demand (If Any) Still a Mystery

The USCM reports that an estimated 24% of the demand for food assistance in the District went unmet in 2015. “Demand” here presumably refers to requests for groceries and/or meals provided by local nonprofits.

Not necessarily all, however, since CAFB would have no information from any nonprofit it didn’t help supply. It does, however, have data for the 444 nonprofits in its distribution network, thanks to a periodic survey Feeding American conducts.

But the latest survey results are for 2014. And the data CAFB can readily access are for all the Washington metro area programs in its network, not just those in the District. So we’ve got a flawed unmet demand estimate — and for the same reason as before.

Flawed Survey, But Not the Whole Story

What I’ve just said about the food assistance figures doesn’t reflect badly on CAFB. The USCM survey clearly asks questions that public agencies it contacts can’t answer, either from their own records or from what other sources can supply.

And respondents don’t get clear instructions on how to come up with such numbers as they can, my CAFB contact says.

There is, however, guidance for the homelessness questions. Cities are told that their best source will be their HIMS. This presumably opened the door to the misleading figures reported for the District. Door open doesn’t mean the Community Partnership — and ultimately DHS — had to walk through it, however.

We know we’ve got a serious homelessness problem in the District. We know that some residents at least sometimes don’t have enough to eat. But the figures should have raised red flags, I think.

Better to have gone back to the sources before responding. And better to have taken a pass on the survey — or at least some questions — than to have USCM report such faulty figures, however well-meaning its attempt to document urban needs.

 

 


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