Food for Thought About the Food on Our Thanksgiving Table

November 23, 2016

Last December, Barbara Ehrenreich took us to task for exercising gratitude. Well, not all of us, but the many who’ve heeded the research—often distilled into self-help guidance—that promotes gratitude because it’s so good for us.

Even those of us who still actually bother to thank people who’ve done nice things for us—rather than, for example, just jotting them down a journal—don’t escape scot-free.

Because, says Ehrenreich, we’re unlikely to feel thankful for the labors of low-income people—and because our gratitude, in and of itself, won’t make a damn bit of difference to them.

The op-ed struck me at the time as more appropriate for Thanksgiving than for the new year we were about to ring in. And perhaps Ehrenreich wrote it for publication then. In any event, I’m recurring to it now, thinking especially about the people whose labors feed us.

Not them only, however. Our Thanksgiving celebrations depend on other low-income people too—the clerks at the grocery stores, the workers in the other stores where we bought the napkins, candles, etc.

They won’t all have a Thanksgiving Day because many of the grocery stores will stay open so we can pick up what we forgot—and because a goodly number of us will start our holiday shopping while we’re still digesting turkey. That, at least, is what stores offering the extra-early Black Friday sales intend.

But back to our food.

Recent events have raised our consciousness of very disgruntled people in rural communities. They’re not, for the most part, actually poor. Or so one gathers from the polls. But many of the people in rural areas are—among them, those who plant, weed and harvest the fruits and vegetables that we’ll have on our tables.

They’re generally supposed to get paid at least the federal minimum wage. So they’d earn slightly over $15,000 a year if they worked full time, year round. But many don’t because crops have growing seasons.

That’s only one reason that farm workers are reportedly among the lowest-paid in the country—paid so little that 25% of their families have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Labor’s latest (not altogether current) survey.

For one thing, not all farm owners have to pay the minimum wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act exempts those who use fewer than 500 “man days” during any calendar quarter, i.e., the equivalent of 500 people working each day.

Sounds like a lot, it but translates into roughly seven workers per quarter, according to Farmworker Justice. It means, in fact, that about a third of our country’s farm workers can legally get paid less than the minimum wage.

Others may wind up short because they’re paid by how much they harvest—so much per bucket, for example. The burden thus falls on them to prove how much they’ve earned, whether more than the minimum wage or less. If less, than they’re owed the minimum.

That’s the most they’re entitled to under federal law. The FLSA doesn’t require farm owners to pay time and a half to workers who put in more than 40 hours a week. California and a few other states mandate overtime pay.

But surely not all farm workers who ought to get it do. Nearly a third of those the Labor Department surveyed spoke no English whatever. Nearly as many spoke only a little. And only 20% said they could read English well.

They’re ripe for wage theft and other abuses, e.g., lack of protection from poisonous pesticides. This is all the more true because nearly half—or perhaps even more—have no legal authority to work here.

Even farm workers born in this country or equipped with green cards run more than the usual risks if they try organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions because they’ve no protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

Well, most of us look forward to Thanksgiving dinner because of the turkey, not the green beans or the mashed sweet potatoes (especially if they’ve got marshmallows mixed in). The pies are a different matter, of course.

What I’ve already said about farm workers applies to those who feed birds, clean up after them and toss them into crates, then onto the trucks that take them to the slaughterhouses—commonly and euphemistically called processing plants.

What life’s like for workers in plants that process turkeys isn’t easily learned—at least, for someone sitting at a computer. But we can learn quite a bit about workers in chicken processing plants. And presumably conditions are comparable.

Pay is low, though generally more than the minimum wage. Hours can be extremely long. But we can guess from past investigations that workers don’t always get paid for overtime. A recent survey of workers in Arkansas poultry plants found that 62% had experienced wage theft of one sort or another.

Further—and more singular problems—have to do with working conditions. Processing involves a lot of tasks, as Oxfam America explains in its lengthy report on workers in the processing plants owned by our major suppliers.

Basically, the birds get hung upside down on a line that speeds along very fast. Workers must keep up. They can’t always go to the bathroom when they need to. They suffer unusually high rates of repetitive motion disorders and other injuries. They’re exposed to harmful chemicals.

They can’t take time off when they’re sick or in too much pain to work without losing pay—and perhaps their jobs. Well-founded fears of job loss causes them to put up with whatever they’re subject to—especially immigrants, documented and otherwise.

I suppose it seems I’m trying to infuse guilt into what’s supposed to be a special day of gratitude. That’s not my intent, though I confess to feeling a little queasy about the low price I paid for my turkey.

Readers who felt stung by Ehrenreich’s column argued that pausing to focus on what we’re grateful for can make us more generous—even “lead to greater efforts to bring about social change.”

I see some truth in this—if we move beyond the things we’re grateful for to a heartfelt understanding of the privileges they imply and beyond that too. Because knowing we’re more privileged than some other folks does nothing

The food on our table (wine too maybe), the people gathered round, the warmth of the house, the security—these are all privileges and, often as not, derive from injustices in our social and economic systems.


Senate’s Child Nutrition Act Update Needs a Fix

October 11, 2016

I’d thought we’d have a new Child Nutrition Act by now. If not that, a bill that had passed in the Senate and needed only a House majority vote. We’re close — and with a bill that has promising features. (See my summaries here and here.)

But one provision has hung up the Senate vote. It may seem highly technical. But it’s more because the current version could deny free school meals to some children who sorely need them.

The provision aims to strengthen the process school districts must use to ensure that only poor and near-poor children get their meals free or at very low cost.

As things stand now, they must verify the family incomes of 3,000 of the applications they’ve approved — or 3% if that’s less.

The revised version would establish a sliding scale, generally beginning at 10,000 or 10% and ratcheting down to the current minimum, based on several performance measures, e.g., a very high percent of applications that confirm children’s eligibility.

A sticking point, as you might imagine, is the sheer number of applications school districts must begin with. Another, however, is that the bill enlarges the pool from which they must be pulled to include families that don’t have to apply in order for their kids to get free meals.

Children whose families receive SNAP (food stamp) and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits are categorically eligible. In other worse, they quality automatically. School districts would have to include some of them in their sample.

Other very low-income children also qualify automatically — those in foster care or migrant families, those in Head Start, a comparable state-funded program or a federally-funded program for runaways and those who are homeless, according to the definition that applies to public school students.

These children may also get swept into the verification pool. But schools may not be able to get all their parents to verify their incomes. The families may have no fixed address, for example — highly likely for the homeless and migrant. They may not have phone service either.

Parents who receive the verification request may not read English well enough to understand it — or even well enough to understand they must get someone to help because their kids otherwise won’t get fed.

But if schools don’t receive the required income proof, they can’t continue serving them free meals.

And that’s not all. Children — and all their family members — could also lose out on meals during the summer, when school isn’t in session.

The new CNA would allow states to provide low-income parents with $30 a month to partly compensate for their higher food costs during the summer. But only parents of children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals could qualify.

So if they didn’t pass the income-eligibility screening, they’d have to come up with the total cost of feeding their kids during the summer, unless they could rely on one of the regular summer meal programs.

Many can’t, for various reasons — and even fewer for the whole of the summer vacation. So what the bill gives with one hand, it would take away with the other.

Now, this is a problem that the Senate Agriculture Committee can resolve. Its chair and the most senior Democratic member work well together. The other members generally do too. They unanimously agreed on the bill we now have.

And we’ve no reason to believe that any of them wanted to take meals away from the very disadvantaged children at risk.

The Committee did, however, assume that the ramped-up verification process would find more children ineligible — and thus free up funds that would otherwise have to subsidize their free and reduced-price meals.

Those funds are already committed to provisions that would better ensure well-nourished children — the summer food benefit, among them.

And the Congressional Budget Office has already delivered a cost estimate that could cause some Senators to balk — not to mention the Republican majority in the House. That’s the heart of the hang-up, I understand.

Start tinkering with the verification requirements and (perish the thought) fewer children lose their free or very low-cost breakfasts, lunches and maybe even after-school snacks.

Well, we won’t have a new CNA before we have a new Congress. The clock is ticking toward the end of the session. And members won’t be in Washington for much of it.

They’ll presumably be preoccupied with must-pass bills when they briefly return after the elections — another spending measure to prevent a government shutdown, for example. So the Ag Committee has time for a fix that won’t harm low-income families.

No telling what will happen then. The House committee responsible for the CNA has produced an alarmingly different bill, though, at this point, not much different verification requirements.

So if the House passes the committee bill, negotiators might agree on them, especially if the Senate bill remains as-is. But they’d face much bigger challenges reaching agreement on the rest.

So the CNA might still go yet another year — or more — without reauthorization. Yet one can hope for a better outcome because the Senate bill would do more to deliver on the current law’s promise of “healthy, hunger-free children.”

That better outcome begins with the Senate’s passing a bill that doesn’t cause some of the most likely to be hungry and thus unhealthy to lose the free meals they get now.

Doesn’t end there, as I suggested. But it’s still the best way forward now.

 


How Public Policies Helped Drive Down the Family Food Insecurity Rate

September 26, 2016

My recent post on SNAP (food stamp) benefits used the latest food (in)security figures to show that those benefits don’t always provide sufficient supplemental nutrition assistance. This is surely true. But it’s a relatively small slice of the story the new report tells.

So here’s the upside and how we might at least partly account for it.

Less Food Insecurity and Less Out-in-Out Hunger

First off, as I noted, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a significantly lower food insecurity rate for 2015 — 12.7% of households, as compared to 14% in 2014. The drop translates into well over 1.5 million households or roughly 5.8 million fewer food insecure people.

The “very low food security” rate also declined, from 5.6% to a flat 5%. So roughly 2.9 million fewer people lived in households where at least one member at least sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

New Low for Food Insecure Children

As in the past, families with children had a higher food insecurity rate than households without — 16.6%, as compared to 10.9%.

But children themselves were food insecure in only 7.8% of families — roughly 3 million. And only 0.7% — about 274,000 — had such severe food insecurity that a child sometimes had to skip a meal or even go without food for a day.

“Only” may seem to trivialize the child hunger problem. But the share of households with food insecure children was the lowest since USDA began tracking the way it does now, in 1998.

How the Economy Helped

The recovering labor market surely helps account for the lower food insecurity and hunger rates. The former peaked at 14.9% in 2011 and the latter ticked back up to 5.7%.

The unemployment rate than averaged 8.9%. It was probably around 5% when households were asked about their food security last year. So more had a breadwinner actually earning bread. And fewer breadwinners were working part-time, though they wanted full-time jobs.

Average hourly wages in the private sector grew, though not as much as labor advocates — and presumably the workers they advocate for — would have liked.

At the same time, auto fuel prices plummeted. And prices for food and most other commonly-purchased goods and services barely increased — or not at all.

These three factors together suggest that some households had enough more to spend on food — and could make the extra go far enough — to shift them into the food secure majority.

How Policies Probably Helped, Though Not Food Related

I earlier cited two public policies that almost surely help explain the marked growth in median household incomes last year. Both minimum wage increases and the Federal Reserve’s decision to let the labor market get tighter presumably meant more money in more families’ budgets for food.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests other policy-related factors. These include the Affordable Care Act, especially, it says, in states that expanded their Medicaid programs.

We shouldn’t altogether discount other ACA features that could have given households more money to spend on food — the substantial subsidies for low-income people who purchased their health insurance on an exchange, for example, and the extended funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

How Nutrition Assistance Policies Helped

SNAP caseloads have steadily shrunk as workers who’d lost their jobs during the Great Recession found others — or got more hours back into their schedules. They’ve unfortunately also shrunk because some very poor people couldn’t find jobs or slots in a training program that would keep them eligible for SNAP.

The Center, however, suggests that SNAP may have reached more eligible individuals and families last year. We know it reached a near-record high in 2014, the latest year USDA has published rates for.

The policy angle here is partly the agency’s effort to encourage outreach by awarding bonuses to states that achieved the highest — and most improved — participation rates.

But it’s also both state and local efforts to bring eligible households into SNAP just because they’d then have more funds to combat hunger. (House Republicans, as you probably know, would do away with this “incentive” by converting the program to a block grant.)

We should also look to other nutrition assistance programs, including the free and reduced-price schools meals the federal government subsidizes.

They’re obviously a factor in food security rates, since parents have more to spend on the meals and snacks they alone can provide if their children get fed for free — or for very little — when school’s in session.

The Center cites one relevant policy change that can help account for last year’s lower family food insecurity and hunger rates — community eligibility.

It’s an option high-poverty schools have to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all their students. More low-income children will get them because it eliminates applications barriers and the stigma children often feel when they know their peers will know they’re poor or nearly so.

The option became available to schools nationwide for the first time in 2014-15. More than 14,200 adopted it then. An additional 4,000 or so joined them the following school year, the first half of which falls within the USDA survey time frame.

So parents of more than 8.5 million children could have saved the costs of ten meals a week for each for roughly half the year. These were not all low-income parents, but at least 40% probably were.

Schools that adopt community eligibility must serve free breakfasts, as well as lunches. But some schools have long served them — never as many as lunches, but the gap is closing. In 2014-15, more than 91% of schools that served lunches also served breakfasts.

Well over 11.6 million low-income children got them on an average day — about 474,600 more than during the prior school year. The Food Research and Action Center, the source of these figures, attributes the increase in part to community eligibility.

A separate, though possibly related reason is that more schools have begun serving breakfasts in the classroom or some other way that doesn’t require children to eat in the cafeteria before the school day begins.

They’ve thus eliminated both the logistical barrier posed by having to get kids to school extra early and the stigma kids may feel because it’s obvious their parents haven’t fed them.

Four states and the District of Columbia had passed laws requiring at least their high-poverty schools to serve “breakfast after the bell” by 2015.

So here’s another way that public policies have played a role in reducing food insecurity and out-in-out hunger for both children and their parents. Still a lot more to do, but we know a lot about what that should be.

More than I’ve covered here, but we know quite a lot about the rest too.


SNAP Reform a Key Action Against Hunger

September 8, 2016

September is Hunger Action Month — an annual campaign Feeding America launched in 2008 to get us all involved in advocacy, volunteering and other actions against hunger in our communities. That, as you know, was at the outset of the Great Recession.

It’s supposedly far behind us, but more people are hungry than shortly before it began. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported that significantly fewer people lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough of the right kinds of foods for “an active healthy lifestyle.”

Yet its survey found over 42.2 million of them — roughly 6 million more than in 2007. About 2.7  million more — 14.6 million in all — had “very low food security,” i.e., lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough of anything.

More than half the food insecure people lived in households that received SNAP (food stamp) benefits for the entire year. And well over 21% had very low food security.

I’ve used past food insecurity figures, as well as other evidence to hammer on the need to increase SNAP benefits. I’d like to recognize this Hunger Action month differently. So I’ll share a personal discovery as a lead into gleanings from a new policy brief.

Since Jesse died, I’ve tried to keep track of what I spend on food — just curious to know how much less than when our budget had to cover meals and snacks for both of us. Then I wondered how that compared to what I could buy if I depended on SNAP benefits.

I found I’m spending, on average, about twice the maximum I could receive. I find this quite remarkable.

I cook virtually everything that needs cooking — mostly from scratch. I don’t eat beef or pork any more. I don’t buy pricey fish or seafood, much as I’d like to. None of the priciest fruits and vegetables either. No sodas or sweet munchies now that I can keep such temptations out of the house without depriving anyone else.

Don’t mean to bore you with the details of my diet. But they’re relevant to my discovery in several ways addressed by the aforementioned brief and its proposals for “modernizing” SNAP.

The author, Professor James Ziliak, focuses on the food plan used to set SNAP benefit — aptly named the Thrifty Food Plan because it’s even cheaper than the lowest-cost plan USDA has developed for the rest of us.

The TFP assumes that SNAP households will fix their meals from scratch — mainly raw ingredients, though not entirely. Families aren’t expected to bake their own bread, for example. And some recipes USDA has published include canned beans, store-bought tomato sauce and the like.

Preparing TFP meals nevertheless requires an estimated 13 hours a week — or perhaps 16 — according to different studies Ziliak cites. Neither time estimate includes getting the groceries or cleaning up after cooking and eating.

Ziliak traces the prep time to the foods in the TFP “market basket.” They’ve changed over time, for two inter-related reasons. One is that federal law has required USDA to adjust the TFP in light of new Dietary Guidelines for Americans — the federal government’s recommendations for a well-balanced diet.

The other is that USDA uses a model that keeps the real-dollar cost of the plan the same as it was when the TFP replaced a very cheap, short-term plan in 1975. The result is a market basket increasingly weighted toward very low-cost foods — bought in bulk or the equivalent.

Hence the unspoken from-scratch assumption. That’s unrealistic for many households, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council concluded — and not only because of the time involved.

I’ve already summarized on other reasons. So I’ll confine myself here to one that’s a core concern of the modernizing proposal — the “geographic variability of food prices.”

Basically, those low-cost foods in the market basket aren’t always as cheap as the TFP assumes because USDA prices them based on the CPI-U — the consumer price index most federal programs use for inflation adjustments.

The index is for urban consumers nationwide. But, as we all know, food costs a whole lot more in some metro areas than others. Using a fairly new database, Ziliak maps the differences between actual TFP market basket costs and the national average in 2010.

In parts of the country, including the District of Columbia, they were as much as 21% higher than average. In-depth studies in a couple of cities have found even great gaps between SNAP benefits and market basket costs.

Ziliak’s proposal would have SNAP benefits immediately increased by 20%. The boost derives from what he calls the “time deficit,” i.e., the difference between the food prep time the TFP requires and what someone (or ones) in SNAP households probably spend.

It would thus eliminate or at least reduce a related deficit — the extra money many of them spend to put food on the table because they don’t have that much prep time.

USDA would then make two changes in the model it uses to calculate the market basket cost it uses for benefits. It would introduce geographic price adjustments, using any one of several already available sources.

It would also change the so-called reference household it uses. That’s now a two-adult household, with two children, the elder somewhere between six and nine years old. Ziliak wants the elder to become a teenage boy. His food needs would presumably drive another across-the-board increase.

Lastly, USDA would conduct research aimed at improving the household food purchasing data it uses to create the market baskets — and, as you might expect, actual food procurement, prep and cleanup time.

The reforms would, of course, reduce food insecurity. They would also, Ziliak argues, reduce poverty, especially for very low-income households. (We’d see the impact if countable income included the value of SNAP benefits, as it already does in the Census Bureau’s better poverty measure analyses.)

The benefits boosts would lead SNAP households to eat more healthfully too, Ziliak says. He borrows here from a recent study for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It assumes a $30 per month increase in SNAP benefits — roughly the same 20% Ziliak recommends.

We’ve had ample evidence of problems with the TFP for a long time — and other proposed fixes. I’ve focused on Ziliak’s because it pulls in a lot of the recent research and makes a persuasive case for reforms that USDA could readily undertake — if Congress headed the call to action on hunger.

Big if, I know.

 

 


Not Such Golden Years for Many Older Americans Because Hunger Stalks

June 13, 2016

I learned only belatedly that last month was Older Americans Month — an after-the-fact answer to why my social media accounts had so many links to posts, feature stories and the like about seniors.

We who’ve entered our supposedly golden years are, as a whole, better off than younger people, thanks mainly to Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare. But substantial numbers of us suffer hardships of various sorts. And in some cases, public programs don’t serve us as well as they could.

As followers know, I’m passionate about food. So I’ll deal here with what public programs do — and don’t — to ensure that all seniors have enough of it and of the right kinds for lives as healthy as we older folks can expect.

Seniors at Risk of Hunger, Despite SNAP

Nearly 9% of households with at least one elderly member were food insecure in 2014. These, as you probably know, were households that couldn’t always afford enough food for everyone to eat healthfully.

Elderly people living alone had a slightly higher rate of food insecurity. And 3.8% of them — about 480,000 — didn’t always have enough to eat, healthful or otherwise.

The Food Research and Action Center views such evident struggles with hunger as a symptom of “senior SNAP gaps” — gaps state agencies and community-based organizations can partially close.

Agencies, for example, can make the application process simpler by, among other things, replacing an extremely burdensome requirement to document medical expenses with a standard excess medical deduction.

Both they and community-based organizations can do targeted outreach to seniors who probably could receive SNAP benefits, but haven’t applied. We’ve long known various reasons for this that outreach can address.

Seniors don’t know they’re eligible, for example. They’d feel ashamed to receive a welfare benefit. Or they believe (wrongly) that they’d be effectively taking food away from someone needier.

But this is far from the whole story, as a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis shows. Elderly people living alone — as the vast majority of those in SNAP do — received, on average, $119 a month in 2012-13.

That translates into about $1.30 per meal — yet another sign that SNAP benefits are too low. Too low for anyone, but for some seniors especially because they can’t stretch their benefits as the food plan USDA uses to set them assumes.

They may, for example, not have ready access to a full-service grocery store — and even more likely, not a form of transportation that would enable them to stock up on food for a week, let alone buy more of what’s on sale.

They may not have either the kitchen facilities or the capacities to prepare their meals from scratch either. But neither they nor anyone else can use SNAP benefits for carryout meals. And microwaveable meals are obviously budget-busters.

USDA cited the age-related challenges in its fact sheet for last year’s Older Americans Month. Yet only two initiatives it announced then addressed problems inherent in the food plan — both pilots, including one I’ve celebrated before.

It would perhaps enable more seniors — and people with disabilities, regardless of age — to use their SNAP benefits for home-delivered groceries. But the benefits would still reflect unrealistic assumptions.

Hunger Not Only Because of SNAP Gaps

Some seniors, of course, can’t get out and about at all — or cook food delivered to them, whether through the SNAP purchasing and delivery option or by some well-meaning relative or friend.

Meals on Wheels enables them to eat, though generally not every day, my Googling around suggests. Those who can get out and about can get meals at a community center, church or some other facility that has them eating together.

The Older Americans Act is a major source of funding for both. Congress recently reauthorized it, with some improvements in the meals portion.

That, however, doesn’t ensure any particular level of funding for nutrition assistance — or any other service state agencies can use their OAA share for. The programs get whatever Congress decides in any given year.

So they took a hit when the Budget Control Act required across-the-board spending cuts. Congress has reportedly restored what the nutrition programs lost. But they’ve gotten no increase in the past two years.

Not surprising then that communities still report waiting lists for Meals on Wheels. A genuine risk of malnutrition, it seems — and a foregone opportunity to reduce other health risks.

A recent study of that fine control-group kind found that daily home-delivered meals improved seniors’ mental health and sense of well-being more than frozen foods delivered weekly.

The Meals on Wheels group also reported falling less, suggesting potential cost-savings beyond those that simply providing enough to eat would achieve.

Further savings, of course, insofar as home-delivered meals can enable seniors to age in place, as most of us want to, rather than moving to a nursing home — at a cost so high that all but the wealthiest (or best-insured) would ultimately have to rely on Medicaid.

As more of us live longer and the costs of feeding us rise, the OAA nutrition programs will need more money to remain an effective part of the food safety net.

This is also true for other public programs that help feed low-income seniors — the Child and Adult Care Food Program, for example. The meals and snacks it subsidizes don’t make much of a dent in senior hunger — only 120,000 or so adults served and not all of them elderly.

A piece of the food safety net nonetheless — and one I would think already needs more money, given the reimbursement rates.

The bottom line here is the bottom line. Food insecurity and hunger — among seniors, children and everyone in between — is a problem Congress can solve. But it can’t without shortchanging other basic needs until it puts a higher priority on them than on reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone.

Down from the soapbox now so that I, among the fortunate, can go fix dinner. But I’ll climb back on it to take up housing — another basis need that even more seniors can’t afford.


House Committee Child Nutrition Bill Creates New, Harmful Block Grant

May 31, 2016

Shortly before the House took yet another break, the Education and Workforce Committee passed a bill to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. All Republicans, but one voting in favor. All Democrats against.

The Chairman, who drafted the bill, has styled it the “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act.” Let’s just say it wouldn’t. Unlike past CNA renewals and the bill awaiting final action by the Senate, it would do the opposite.

I’ve already noted how the bill — still then a draft — would deny many now-eligible schools the option of serving free meals to all their students. That’s just one of many concerns the Food Research and Action Center summarizes.

Top of its list is a provision the Chairman added to get his right-wingers on board. It’s yet another block grant — limited initially, but clearly an entering wedge, since it involves programs House Republicans haven’t sought to block grant for a very long time.

The bill would allow three states to receive a single funding stream for four child nutrition programs, including the school breakfast and lunch programs. They’d get the same amount of funding each year, regardless of what it would cost to continue serving free and reduced-price meals to all low-income children.

Their block grants seem, at first, whatever they received this year. But they’d almost surely get less because the bill excludes the extra six cents per lunch the current CNA provides when school districts meet the improved nutrition standards. All but tiny fraction do.

States would have a lot of flexibility, of course, because that’s Republicans’ big selling point for block grants. They could, for example, altogether disregard those nutrition standards, provided they served meals that were “healthy,” according to whatever standard they devised.

They could define eligibility for free and reduced-price meals however they chose. So perhaps all but the very poorest families would have to pay the reduced-price rates. And those could be far higher than the current rule allows — 40 cents per lunch and a dime less for breakfast.

They wouldn’t have to fund both breakfasts and lunches. They’d only have to ensure that children have “access” to one “affordable” (undefined) meal a day.

Now, it’s doubtful states would use their flexibility in all the worst ways they could. But as food costs rise and other costs that prepared meals entail, e.g., labor, utilities, they’d have to spend more of their own funds or cut other costs.

Hard to see how they could do the latter without denying children now eligible for free or reduced-price meals the same number of meals — and meals as truly affordable and healthful — as schools now provide.

And what about children who’d become eligible if the economy goes south? As things stand now, federal subsidies for school meals grow when more children get them at no or very little cost to their families.

But block grant states wouldn’t get a penny more, no matter how great the need. A further pressure then to ratchet down eligibility standards and/or cut back on meals.

Well, the Ed and Workforce bill won’t become the new Child Nutrition Act, even if the House passes it. So why should we concern ourselves?

First off, it could doom the Senate bill. The responsible committee there passed its bill unanimously, raising hopes of a fairly smooth glide path to a full Senate vote in favor.

Now some Republicans may fancy what they see in the House bill and insist on something similar. There goes the super-majority required for a substantive vote — perhaps even a plain majority.

If the Senate instead passes the bill its committee has crafted, then the task of developing a compromise version that both chambers will pass becomes even more difficult than it would have been without the late addition of the block grant.

So again, we’ll have another year without any changes in the CNA — perhaps not the worst thing, as you’ve gathered, but not the best one could realistically hope for either.

We should perhaps look at the latest block grant contender more broadly. It’s a sign — not the only one — that lead Republicans are trying to promote block grants as a key reform in the federal anti-poverty effort.

SNAP and Medicaid block grants have been standard features of House budget plans ever since Republicans gained a majority.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has teed up opportunity grants — basically, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families on steroids, as I said at the time. The anti-poverty agenda he’ll unveil next week will almost surely, at the very least, endorse “state flexibility funds,” aka block grants.

Meanwhile, his second-in-command aims to covert a block grant that’s now a limited experiment into a nationwide program. More on that soon. The big picture, however, is already clear.

The child nutrition block grant is a symptom of a multi-faceted effort to end the safety net as we know it, leaving states with the flexibility to undermine protections or use their own tax revenues to fill funding gaps.

Which, as we know, many won’t, even if they could. We’ve got more than enough evidence in TANF –the model Republicans still tout.

No one, I think, views all safety net and similar programs as perfect. Carefully tailored, limited experiments may surface improvements worth expanding — through reauthorizing laws, for example.

But the school meal programs generally do what they’re supposed to — reduce hunger, improve health and, for both reasons, enable low-income children to learn more in their classrooms. They wouldn’t if block-granted.

And Republicans on the Ed and Workforce Committee presumably know this, but care more about cutting federal spending — except, of course, for defense.

 


Why So Many People at Risk of Hunger in DC and Nationwide?

May 19, 2016

We may all be Washington, D.C., as the Mayor’s slogan implies, but we’re not all sufficiently fed. In fact, 90,900 (13.8%) of us don’t always have enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle because we can’t afford it, according to Feeding America’s latest Map the Meal Gap report.*

The “us” here includes 29,820 children (nearly 26%) of those living in the District in 2014, the most recent year Feeding America could get data for. They’re not necessarily underfed, but they live in food insecure households and so are, at the very least, at risk of hunger.

Troublesome as these figures are, they’re better than those for the prior two years — especially 2013, when the food insecurity rate for all District residents was 15% and, for children, 30.5%.

On the other hand, the child food insecurity rate is 5% higher than the national rate, though the overall rate is slightly lower.

What can we tease out to explain such relatively high food insecurity rates in the District? First off — and this is true everywhere — families with children are more likely to be hard up for food money than families without them.

They’re still short, even with SNAP (food stamp) benefits and other federally-funded nutrition assistance, e.g., WIC, free or reduced-price school meals. Or so it seems.

Here in the District, nearly three-quarters of food insecure residents have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line — the threshold Feeding America uses because the District has taken advantage of an option that allows residents with incomes this high to have their eligibility for SNAP considered.

Doesn’t mean they’ll all qualify. Their income, after deductions must still be no greater than 100% of the FPL But broad-based categorical eligibility, as the option is called, does seem to make a difference.

For children, Feeding America uses 185% of the FPL — the maximum income for WIC and reduced-price school meals. By this measure, somewhat over two-thirds of food insecure children qualify for nutrition assistance.

The flip side of these figures, of course, is that a quite high percent of food insecure District residents, including children have household incomes too high for any federally-funded nutrition assistance.

Both those aided and those not face a problem that the Feeding America report is really about — what it calls the meal gap, i.e., the difference between the per-meal cost of food and what individuals and families can afford.

It does some complex number-crunching to arrive at the gap — or more precisely, gaps. The end result for the nation as a whole is $2.89.

The meal gap in the District is notably higher — $3.49 per meal or more than $73 a week, assuming three meals a day, every day, as Feeding America does. This surely goes a long way toward explaining the high food insecurity rates.

On the one hand, as I’ve said, many food insecure District residents have incomes to high to qualify for SNAP, which would supplement their own budgets.

The city is also home to residents who’ve got incomes well below the threshold, but don’t qualify because they’re undocumented immigrants — or documented, but haven’t lived in the country long enough.

On the other hand, those who do qualify won’t have enough to cover the costs of reasonably healthful meals all month long. A parent with two children, for example, can get at most $511 a month — or about $1.87 per meal for each family member.

Closing the local meal gap would have cost roughly $56 million two years ago — and more than $24.5 billion nationwide. That’s a lot of money. Which tells us why Feeding America maps the gap.

The organization, as you may know, supplies food to a national network of food banks. Some of the food comes from federal agencies, it says. The rest — and far greater portion — comes from private-sector sources, e.g., food processors, grocery chains and monetary donations it uses to buy food.

The banks, in turn, channel the food to nonprofits that serve prepared meals and/or distribute groceries to poor and near-poor people in the area they serve. They too may get food from private-sector sources and buy more, using cash or cash-equivalent donations.

And they may get some from the Emergency Food Assistance Program — a variable mix that the U.S. Department of Agriculture parcels out to state agencies and they, in turn, to the banks and/or community action agencies.

Here in the District, 132 pantries, dining rooms, other programs that serve meals and/or snacks and the DC Central Kitchen, which prepares meals for some of them, depend in part on what they receive from the Capital Area Food Bank.

Narrowing the meal gap will obviously require more food — and more money to not only buy it, but distribute, store, prepare and deliver it.

We surely can’t look to this Congress, though we can hope it doesn’t widen the gap. That’s what House Republicans would do if they succeeded in converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have repeatedly envisioned.

It’s what their latest plan would probably do, even without the block grant, because it puts a tighter squeeze on non-defense programs that depend on annual spending choices. This already-shrunken part of the budget includes WIC, parts of TEFAP and several sources of funds for free or low-cost home-delivered meals.

Highly doubtful we’ll see the cuts this year. But it’s obvious that the meal gap will remain — and probably grow, as it already has — without more public funds to shrink it.

* The food insecurity rates Feeding America reports for states and the District are slightly higher than those USDA reported. This apparently is because the agency uses two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small size of its survey sample.