Hunger Costs America Well Over $160 Billion a Year

November 30, 2015

Hunger costs our country $160 billion a year, Bread for the World reports. That’s more than one and a half times what the federal government spent on all domestic food assistance programs last fiscal year.

And the estimate is very conservative because it reflects only what the analysts could glean from academic studies of the impacts of hunger and food insecurity on health and related costs.

These include health care, of course, but also lost work time due to personal illness or the need to care for a sick family member.

The report, though not the headline figure also includes other indirect costs, i.e., for special education in public schools and dropouts after students had to be absent too much and/or repeat a grade.

Folding these in increases the hunger cost to nearly $179 billion. And as the online intro to the report says, that’s still only partial because we don’t have the research to quantify all relevant costs.

It cites the costs of forgoing prescribed medications — or skipping doses — so as to have more money for food. Also missing from the estimates, it says, are various other health-related “byproducts” of hunger.

These include overweight and obesity, some forms of cancer, deficiencies in micronutrients like iron, calcium and the familiar vitamins, potentially preventable returns to hospitals and mental health problems, though some of these are factored in.

The new study borrows from and updates a similar study conducted in 2010. One would expect high hunger-related costs then, what with so many people out of work and perilously short on money — a problem even for those with temporarily-boosted SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

As you know, the official unemployment rate has dropped. So has the estimate of what it would be if all working-age jobless adults were counted.

But hunger-related health costs have continued to rise. This is especially notable because the prior “hunger bill” included the costs of charitable feeding programs, while the Bread for the World study didn’t.

I’m never comfortable with putting a price tag on the harms deprivation causes. But costs do make for good headlines and may grab the attention of policymakers, especially when they imply potential savings.

It’s still disturbing to see costs attributed to severe, possibly chronic health problems — and to suicide, the third largest item in the latest cost estimate.

How can we put a dollar figure on the suffering of people who did away with themselves or on the grief, guilt and other often devastating emotions of survivors? Or the pangs of accommodating holes in the fabric of their everyday lives?

The leaders of Bread for the World undoubtedly have similar reservations. The organization identifies itself as a “collective Christian voice,” advocating for a world without hunger.

Helping us recognize the shockingly high health costs of hunger and malnutrition may stir us to advocacy and give us ammunition. It may perhaps even change some of our policymakers’ perspectives.

But ensuring that everyone in this country has enough healthful food to eat every day is fundamentally a moral call. We all feel this, I think, whether we affiliate with a religious faith or not.

Yet we’ve got about 48 million people here who at the very least may go hungry — and roughly 17.2 million who at least sometimes do.

Apologies for climbing onto a soapbox. Thinking about hunger, especially when many of us are still recovering from the food excesses of Thanksgiving — and perhaps the shopping aftermath — gets me going.

So to end on a somewhat different note, this is also the time of year when we with the wherewithal often give to the charities of our choice. Our gifts can’t eliminate hunger. We need sufficiently funded government programs for that.

But organizations that feed poor and near-poor people and advocate on their behalf deserve our support. Off the soapbox and onto other issues.

Lawsuit Seeks More Federal Spending to Help Supply Nonprofit Feeding Programs

November 12, 2015

Bread for the City, one of the District of Columbia’s largest nonprofit sources of food and services for poor and near-poor residents, has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It contends that the agency has failed to spend as much on TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program) as the current Farm Bill requires. So it’s not receiving all the non-perishables it could put in the grocery bags it distributes as it would if USDA complied with the law.

If true, at least 60,000 free food providers nationwide — pantries, dining rooms and home-delivered equivalents — could have less than Congress intended. They’d have been shy the food equivalent of about $303 million last fiscal year, judging from USDA’s account of its state-by-state distribution.

The relevant legislation is beyond my capacity to parse. As a legal expert explained it, the alleged under-spending involves two identical provisions — one in the current Farm Bill and one in the former Farm Bill, which it amended.

Basically, he said, each adds $250 million to a base that’s annually adjusted for food price increases, as reflected in the Thrifty Food Plan, which USDA uses to set SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

The current bill then adds a further increase that ratchets down from $50 million last fiscal year to $40 million for the current budget year, then further down through 2018.

The lawsuit contends that USDA should have spent $602 million on food purchases last year. USDA, however, interprets the law to have authorized only $327 million — this apparently because it sees a single applicable provision where the legal expert (and Bread’s lawyers) see two.

Even that’s a boost from the roughly $265.8 million authorized for Fiscal Year 2013. But the boost the lawsuit claims Congress authorized is obviously much larger. A substantial boost would not be unprecedented, however.

Congress, I’m told, often increases TEFAP funding when it cuts funding for SNAP, it did in the new Farm Bill, which reduced benefits for an expected 850,000 or so households.

The notion, it seems, is to partly compensate for the fact that SNAP cuts cause more poor and near-poor people to seek food from nonprofit providers — and to cause more to seek it more often.

Feeding America reported more frequent visits to the feeding programs its food bank network helps supply — partly with foods it gets from TEFAP — even before Congress cut SNAP benefits. And a large increase in people served too.

Bread for the City’s experience indicates that the trend continues. During the last fiscal year, its pantry served 11-12% more low-income households, a spokesperson told me. At the same time, the dollar value of commodities from TEFAP has dropped markedly, she said. And, of course, food costs are rising.

As a result, Bread has to rely more on what it gets from private donors to purchase what it distributes — three day’s worth of groceries per month for all low-income residents who apply and have equipment at home to fix meals.

It hasn’t turned any away or reduced the amount it distributes, as some feeding programs have. Nor has it compromised its high nutrition standards for what goes into the grocery bags.

But we see here again an instance of the cost-shifting I’ve spoken of before — a linchpin of new House Speaker Ryan’s explicit justification for large-scale cuts in safety net programs.

As Congress under-funds federal food assistance programs, private-sector organizations — both nonprofits and their donors — do their best to fill “the meal gap,” as Feeding America calls it. But there’s only so much they can do.

Two years ago, filling the gap, i.e., providing every food insecure household in the country with enough extra money to have no imminent risk of hunger, would have cost an additional $24.2 billion, Feeding America reports.

No way the private sector could come up with that much more. And the cost of filling the gap would actually be larger because the Census survey that USDA uses for its food (in)security reports doesn’t include individuals and families who are homeless.

The percent of eligible District residents who receive SNAP benefits is extraordinarily high. Yet more than 41,300 housed households — an average of roughly one in seven — suffered from food insecurity during the three-year period including 2014.

The Food Research and Action Center, which uses a roughly equivalent measure and a larger survey sample, reports somewhat more than one in six for 2014 alone.

These figures provide a perspective on the challenges the District’s nonprofit food assistance network faces, though, as I’ve suggested, only partial, since we’ve got hungry homeless people too.

The challenges are, of course, not unique. In Mississippi, for example, the latest three-year average food insecurity rate is 22% and FRAC’s latest food hardship rate even higher.

The court order Bread’s lawsuit seeks wouldn’t make these challenges manageable. And I’m not prepared to predict the outcome — or even comment on the validity of the claim.

But it does seem that TEFAP, like other parts of our safety net, could do more to relieve hunger and malnutrition if federal spending better reflected need.



Home-Delivered Groceries: A SNAP Solution Who’s Time Has Come

October 29, 2015

Several years go, an online fresh food order and delivery service launched a pilot in the Bronx that enabled low-income residents to use their SNAP (food stamp) benefits for purchases and have them delivered for free.

I’m told the company — FreshDirect — views the experiment as a roaring success, presumably because the profits from the additional purchases at least offset the costs.

It’s surely a model worth further trials because it promises to reduce food insecurity and improve the healthfulness of what poor and near-poor people eat.

This is perhaps especially true for some low-income seniors and people with disabilities because getting to a grocery store — and then home with bundles of groceries — poses obvious challenges for people who can’t drive or find some helpful soul to chauffeur them.

Now there’s an opportunity for nonprofits and/or government agencies to address their problem.

Food Insecurity and Hunger

About 5.4% of people in their 60s suffer from food insecurity, according to updated (but not up-to-date) figures in an analysis for the AARP Foundation. Somewhat over 3.7% more have “very low food security,” i.e., at least sometimes don’t have enough of anything to eat.

Both rates are lower than for the U.S. population as a whole. But they still mean that about one in nine seniors who haven’t reached 70 can’t always afford “enough food for an active, healthy life.”

This doesn’t mean the rest have a healthful diet, however. As the analysts note, the questions in the survey used for food insecurity focus on financial resources. For seniors, other factors may also matter, as I suggested above.

We don’t, so far as I know, have food insecurity and hunger rates for people with disabilities. The best we’ve got come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis of food insecurity among households that included a working-age adult too severely disabled for employment.

A third of them were food insecure in 2009-10. And nearly half of these included at least one member who at least sometimes went hungry.

Costs associated with disabilities help explain the extraordinarily high rates — health care and special equipment, for example, and in some cases, lower (or no) earned income by another household member because s/he had to be home to provide care.

USDA also notes other factors, e.g., insufficient Supplement Security Income and SNAP benefits. But even if SNAP benefits would cover food costs, it says, someone with a disability may face logistical challenges.

These are basically the same as those confronting seniors, who may, of course, have disabilities. Advancing age tends to bring these on us.

FreshDirect Pilot and Other Online Services

The pilot involved both some investments and approval from USDA so that the company could accept SNAP benefits as payment. It had two problems to address — one technological and one reflecting federal policy.

On the technological front, the company had to develop a way to scan the electronic benefits cards that are our modern-day equivalent to food stamps and to modify its website so that it could accept orders from people who’d pay with these cards.

On the policy front, it had to either absorb the delivery costs or charge its SNAP customers because their benefits cover only food and beverage costs.

Several other grocery companies have somewhat similar online services, though most, it seems, not free delivery. Perhaps Safeway, but only for people with disabilities and only through some direct interaction with its customers service department.

USDA Initiatives

The latest version of the Farm Bill, like the one it replaced, allows some organizations to accept SNAP benefits for home-delivered food. In mid-July, USDA proposed a rule to reflect the law.

Only government and nonprofit organizations can qualify. And they can accept the benefits only for food delivered to households headed by someone who’s at least 60 years old or disabled and “unable to shop for food,” i.e., by going to a grocery story.

Organizations can charge for delivery, but no more than $20 at any one time. They can also set an order minimum up to $50.

At the same time, USDA said it would soon seek up to 20 food purchasing and delivery services for a one-year pilot. Details yet to come. Lessons learned, it said, will help shape the final rule.

Better Than Nothing, But …

The rule USDA will issue — and thus the projects it will pilot — have limits rooted in the Farm Bill. So not everyone who could benefit will. Nor those who could as much as they might perhaps.

For example, using EBT cards to pay for home-delivered food would benefit SNAP recipients who are neither elderly nor too disabled to shop easily at a grocery store.

The CEO of FreshDirect cites “working moms.” We should also, I think, consider others who don’t drive or have someone who’ll regularly drive them for free.

Speaking from personal experience, trundling a weeks’ worth of groceries home in a cart, as I briefly had to, takes a fair amount of strength when you’re trundling on uneven brick sidewalks and across potholed streets.

And it drives up costs because it pretty well rules out economy-size packages — assuming you can’t trundle repeatedly every week. Ditto for stocking up when foods are on sale.

Potential delivery charges are problematic too. We can assume, I think, that most SNAP recipients don’t have big freezers or a lot of other food storage space. So they’d have to use a home delivery services at least several times a month.

A person with a severe disability who relies on SSI benefits receives, at most, $733 a month. And that’s often got to cover all basic living costs except food and some health care. Home delivery at the maximum allowable would even mean less money for them.

Ideally, SNAP recipients could use their benefits for home delivery charges. But merely expanding what the benefits can cover is no solution because they’re already too low — at most, only about $2.30 per meal for a single person and less than twice that for a couple.

Low for anybody, but especially for people who can’t prepare most of what they eat from scratch, as the basis for SNAP benefits assumes.

On the other hand, expecting nonprofits to swallow the costs of home delivery service seems like the sort of cost-shifting we already see, as they (and their donors) help stave off hunger among those who receive SNAP benefits, as well as those who, for various reasons, don’t.

So I would hope that state and local governments seize the opportunity to defray delivery costs. Like as not, they’d save at least as much as they spend, since regular, reasonably balanced meals help prevent — and control — a range of chronic diseases that drive up their healthcare costs.




When No News Isn’t Good News: Hunger Edition

September 24, 2015

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the food insecurity rate last year was so little different from the 2013 rate as to be statistically the same — 14%.

That’s about 17.4 million households or a total of 48.1 million people without “consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

There was also no measurable change in what USDA calls the “very low food security rate,” i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes didn’t have enough to eat due to lack of resources, including SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

More than 6.9 million households — 5.6% of all in the U.S. — fell into this category. And in 422,000 of them, children were sometimes hungry, had to skip meals or even went a whole day without anything to eat. No statistically significant change in this rate either.

These figures almost surely understate the actual extent of malnutrition and hunger in this country because the survey they’re based on doesn’t include homeless individuals or families. They’re nonetheless troubling. And the news doesn’t get more cheering as we drill down.

Food Insecurity Over the Longer Term

The nationwide food insecurity rate peaked in 2011, when it was 14.9%. The latest rate is lower than that, by a meaningful amount. But the very low food security rate isn’t.

Looking back over a longer time period, the food insecurity rate in 1999 was 10.1%. It rose every year, but one thereafter until 2012. At the same time, the very low food security rate inched up, though not yearly until 2009.

We see a slight drop then, but a return to the prior rate — 5.7% — the following year. And, as the foregoing indicates, that’s basically where it’s stuck.

Food Costs and SNAP

The typical U.S. household spent $50 a week per person for food last year. This is 17% more than the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits.

But the percent is considerably higher for households with incomes of at least 185% of the federal poverty line, the income eligibility cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

These households spent $52.50 a week per person or 30% more than what the Thrifty Food Plan would allot them. As in the past, these figures are among the many that tells us SNAP benefits are too low.

The more telling, however, are the food insecurity rates among households that received these benefits for the entire 12 months the survey covered.

More than half the households — 51.9% — were food insecure. And well over half of these — 25.5% — had very low food security. Both these rates are somewhat higher than in 2012, the last full year before the premature expiration of the SNAP benefits boost the Recovery Act provided.

Food Insecurity in the District of Columbia

USDA reports three-year averages for states and the District to compensate for the relatively small number of households surveyed each year.

During 2012-14, 13.2% of D.C. households — roughly 41,315 — were food insecure. Of these, 4.9% — about 15,335 — couldn’t always afford to buy enough food of any sort for everyone to have enough to eat.

Both these rates are essentially the same as the national rates for the same time period. And both are essentially the same as the District’s rates during 2009-11. They’re considerably higher, however, than the rates during 2002-4, when they were 10.2% and 2.9%.

The just-released results of the American Community Survey don’t yet include current three-year averages for SNAP. We do, however, learn that 14.4% of District households received SNAP benefits last year. This is somewhat higher than the nationwide rate. But it apparently doesn’t translate into less food insecurity.

Don’t know what to make of all of this beyond the obvious. While SNAP benefits are too low everywhere, they’re especially insufficient in high-cost cities like the District, as research I’ve previous cited shows.

SNAP households are expected to spend 30% of their own money on food. Even that much probably wouldn’t make up for the shortfall between SNAP benefits and the costs of even the unrealistic Thrifty Food Plan.

In any case, a family doesn’t live by food alone. High housing costs and extraordinarily high childcare costs dwarf the estimated amount a family would need for food in the District.

So one has to assume that at least some families spend less on food than what’s supposed to be their share because that’s the only way they can pay the rent — and the only way they can work if they’ve got children who can’t be left to fend for themselves or with a friend of family member.

We’ve got a broad network of nonprofits that provide free food and/or meals to low-income District residents. But as Bread for the World’s president has said, “We can’t ‘food bank’ our way out of hunger.”

The new USDA figures confirm this not only for the District, but elsewhere. Yet we’re a long way from long-advocated increases in SNAP benefits — and a long way as well, it seems, from federal appropriations that would increase the reach of other anti-hunger programs.

In fact, we’ll be lucky if the news from Capitol Hill is no news.



What We Can Hope for (and Not) in the New Child Nutrition Act

August 13, 2015

Lots for Congress to do when members return to the capital. The must-do list includes some measure to keep funds flowing to programs covered by the Child Nutrition Act, since it’s due to expire at the end of September.

Work is already underway to renew the CNA for the usual five years. House members and Senators have introduced more than a dozen bills they hope will shape the final product.

A somewhat selective preview then of what we can hope to see — and what we might see that shouldn’t be hoped for.

More Free Summer Meals

The Food Research and Action Center has, for some years now, tracked low-income school-age children’s participation in summer meal programs.

The latest rate is somewhat better than recent past rates, but still indicates that only about one in six children who received free or reduced-price school lunches in 2013-14 also got free mid-day meals during the peak month for summer meal programs.

Many reasons for this. One is built into the law — a limit on where community-based organizations may serve summer meals without paying the full cost. They’re eligible for reimbursements only if they’re in an area where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

This is especially problematic in rural communities — and probably a growing number of suburbs — where there are pockets of poverty in the midst of better-off areas.

The Summer Meals Act would lower the so-called area eligibility standard to 40%. This is the standard already used to target Title I education funds for low-income and other disadvantaged children, as well as the newer standard that enables schools to serve free meals to all students.

There’d be some grant funds to get more children in rural communities to summer meal sites — or summer meals to them directly via specially-outfitted trucks.

The bill would also eliminate duplicative paperwork, which may deter some nonprofits and public agencies from participating. And it would allow all summer meal sites, instead of only some camps and sites serving primarily migrant children to serve three subsidized meals a day, rather than only two.

Cash-Like Benefits to Fill the Summer Meal Gap

Another bill takes a different, complementary approach to the risk of hunger that increases when summer rolls round.

The Stop Summer Hunger Act would partly compensate low-income parents for the extra they often have to spend on food during the summer months, when they may have to feed their children three meals a day — and like as not do, though perhaps only by skimping on food for themselves.

Families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals would get electronic benefits cards, like the cards now used in SNAP (the food stamp program).

The cards would pay for $150 in foods and beverages next summer — more in later years to reflect increases in the reimbursement rates that partially offset the costs of the meals schools serve.

Better Meals for More Kids in Day Care

The Child and Adult Care Food Program, as its name suggests, subsidizes meals and/or snacks that childcare providers, adult day care centers and certain other programs, e.g., Head Start, serve.

By far and away the largest number fed are children — about 3.5 million a day in Fiscal Year 2013, FRAC reports.

The Access to Healthy Food for Young Children Act would make several changes similar to those proposed in the Summer Meals Act.

It would lower the area eligibility standard for providers who care for children in their homes. It would also enable providers to serve three subsidized meals to children they care for eight hours a day.

And very importantly, it would increase reimbursement rates, which are now so low as to deter participation in the program and/or serving optimally healthful meals and snacks.

Not much of a boost proposed — just 10 cents per meal. But the bill would also provide some additional funding to offset the costs of complying with the updated nutrition standards the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon issue.

Let Them Eat Cake

On the downside, we find dubious concessions to the School Nutrition Association, which purports to represent many millions of the school personnel responsible for planning and supervising the preparation of school meals.

The Association contends, as it has for some time, that the current nutrition standards for subsidized meals are unworkable.

USDA issued them, as the current CNA required, to reflect the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and recommendations from several other expert sources.

Basically, they call for more fruits and veggies, “whole grain rich” bread, pizza crust and the like, low-fat or nonfat milk, less sodium and saturated fats, virtually no added trans fats and age-based limits on calories per week.

Meals that comply cost too much, the School Nutrition Association says. And schools lose more money because kids who can buy their meals elsewhere do — or bring them from home.

Those who do go to the cafeteria won’t eat what’s served. So food — and the federal money that subsidizes it — are wasted.

USDA and others have rebutted most of these arguments, as a FRAC summary indicates. But the Association has tapped favorite themes in the Republicans’ playbook — waste in federal programs and “one-size-fits-all” regulations that cramp needed flexibility.

So we see bills that would prohibit USDA from administering or enforcing major components of the meal standards. The Healthy Meals Flexibility Act would roll back the “whole grain rich” requirement to what it was before the update and free schools from any effort to reduce sodium.

A companion bill would go further toward reducing federal mandates, as its title indicates. It would also effectively eliminate both the maximum calorie limits and the minimum-maximum ranges for grains of any sort, meat and meat alternatives.

I don’t know enough to assess every jot and tittle of the school meal standards. And I don’t doubt that some schools have found compliance challenging.

But the real issue the attacks on the standards raise is whether meals our taxpayer dollars subsidize should reflect the best current scientific judgments on the makeup of a well-balanced diet for children — and thus the foods they’re introduced to and the eating habits they develop.

This is especially critical, I think, for low-income children, whose parents may have neither the financial resources nor the time to serve healthful meals at home or fix them to put into backpacks.

In any event, we’ll soon have new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. So it would seem sensible for Congress to again require USDA to update the standards, so far as necessary.

Far better than to preempt any enforcement of requirements adapted from recommendation of top-flight, disinterested experts.




Low-Income Moms Weigh in on Child Nutrition Programs

July 23, 2015

My, it seems like only yesterday that Congress reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act. Yet here we are again, with hearings, proposals, petitions and behind-closed-doors presentations that will determine the shape and reach of many of our major federal nutrition assistance programs — perhaps before year’s end.

Last week, we heard from experts of a different sort — two low-income mothers who know first-hand how the child nutrition programs work. And though both had thoughts about how they could work better, the big message was that they do work — for moms, as well as kids.

The experts are Witnesses to Hunger — participants in grassroots groups brought together by Professor Mariana Chilton of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities. They bear witness to food insecurity and hunger, but also a range of other poverty-related issues.

They’re given cameras to shoot photos that capture something significant about their lives. They collaborate to create exhibits and choose issues to advocate on.

And they speak truth to power in hearings, meetings and other forums where policymakers who choose to can learn how the decisions they’ve made affect low-income families — and how those they could make would.

The CNA comprises nine federal programs that subsidize meals, snacks and serve-at-home foods and beverages for poor and near-poor children, parents and, in some cases, elderly and/or disabled adults.

The two Witnesses — Quanda and Tianna — focused largely on school meal programs and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

Witnesses collectively, however, have an agenda for the CNA reauthorization that also includes both summer meal programs and a WIC offshoot that enables some participants to get coupons or the equivalent for purchases at farmers’ markets.

Quanda opened the discussion by saying, “I love WIC.” Her first and seemingly foremost reason wasn’t, as we might expect, the supplement that enabled her to afford more than her SNAP (food stamp) benefits cover.

Rather, it was what she learned about “how to eat” so as to nourish her unborn child and why she should breastfeed her — something she says she wouldn’t have done without the education and practical how-to WIC staff provided.

She’s grateful for the supplement too, however. WIC enabled her to resume looking for work, which meant no more breastfeeding — and thus the need for a store-bought substitute. Without WIC formula coupons, she would have had to spend more than half her SNAP benefits just for the cans.

The burden would have been even greater when she learned, thanks to WIC staff, that she would have to buy an alternative to regular milk for her second child because his acute digestive problems were symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Life was still very tough, especially after he was born, and she was trying to care for her family with only their nutrition benefits and cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — probably $618 a month, since she lives in Boston.

“I am single,” Quanda said — not simply because she’s unmarried, but because she “can’t go to anyone.” She has “no mother, grandmother or boyfriend” to turn to. No such source of emotional support. No handed-down wisdom.

At times, she’d lie on her bed crying, tempted to “give up…. Nobody told me how I would feel.” But her caseworker apparently stepped into the breach. “If the programs weren’t in place, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. I use the programs as my village.”

Quanda’s story seems likely to have a happy ending. She’s earned a teaching certificate and has a full-time job in early childhood education. Her children are in school now.

The free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches they get there ensure they have enough of the right kinds of things to eat, even at the end of the month, when her SNAP benefits run short, since they have to cover only dinners — at least, on weekdays when school is in session.

The story could have been quite different. “Hunger and food insecurity are a brain disease,” Chilton told us. During infancy, the brain’s neurons, i.e., its specialized messaging cells, proliferate interconnections exponentially.

But without the needed nutrients, development slows. And what doesn’t happen in early childhood won’t be made up for later.

Not long after I started this blog, I published a post, based in part on a brief by Children’s HealthWatch that summarized what was then the latest scientific evidence of WIC’s effectiveness in promoting the health and development of very young children.

I focused mainly on funding, which is still an issue, and on the need for Congress to require more fruits and vegetables in the package states must use in deciding which specific foods and beverages — and how much of each — they’ll enable parents to buy with their benefits.

The package provides for more more fruits and vegetables now. Witnesses would still like “[m]ore fruits and veggie checks,” i.e., coupons or credits they could use in grocery stores. They want more milk for older children also. And electronic benefits cards in states that still issue coupons.

These are the sorts of specific improvements that people who participate in our safety net programs can best identify.

What struck me so about what the two Witnesses said, however, was their emphasis on the broader child and family health orientation that distinguishes WIC, including their relationships with counselors. The benefits here are only partly reflected in the health data research provides.

The moms clearly want, more than anything, to see their children thrive — emotionally, as well as physically. They want to see them grow into adults who have fulfilling jobs and more financial security than they have had.

Advocacy is part of this. “We tell our stories,” Tianna said, “so our children will not walk in the same steps we do.” This is why they’re speaking out on the CNA programs they know best.

WIC, says Quanda, can help millions of moms like her “create a strong foundation for … [their] kids to break the cycle of poverty.” Seems to me that ought to resonate with policymakers across the political spectrum.





Food Hardship Still Common Nationwide and in DC

April 27, 2015

The Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship report delivers some moderately good news about households nationwide. But the news is only comparatively good — and pretty awful for households in some parts of the country.

How FRAC Reports Food Hardship

As I’ve written before, FRAC uses survey data Gallop collects on an ongoing basis from a large sample of households. They’re asked, among other things, “Have there been times in the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

A “yes” is what FRAC refers to as food hardship. It’s roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food insecurity. But obviously, there’s more than just insecurity in not being able to afford enough food.

FRAC, indeed, entitles its report How Hungry Is America? The answers actually tell what percent of American households were hungry at least some of last year — nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

The report also includes household hunger rates for each of the 100 largest metro areas. These combine survey data for 2013 and 2014 so they’ll be reasonably accurate for what are mostly smaller populations.

The Big Food Hardship Picture

More than one in six households — 17.2% — experienced food hardship in 2014, according to the survey responses. This is hardly a figure to crow about. But it’s the first time the rate has been this low since the recession set in.

It hit 19.5% during the last four months of 2008, then varied from nearly as high to nearly as low as the latest rate. The latest rate held constant throughout the year, as apparently the earlier dips didn’t.

We see much more variation among states. The 2014 food hardship rate was over 19% in a dozen states — and nearly 25% in Mississippi. In only one state — North Dakota — was the rate less than 10%.

The picture further dims when we turn to the large metro areas — technically, the metropolitan statistical areas the federal Office of Management and Budget has carved out for agencies’ “statistical activities.”

Food hardship rates were higher than the national rate in all but 35 of the MSAs — and over 20% in 30 of them. These were mostly in the South and Mid-West, but we see pockets of widespread food hardship elsewhere, e.g., in several of California’s major agricultural centers.

Might it be that the law denying SNAP (food stamp) benefits to undocumented immigrants — and most of those here legally for less than five years — explains those egregiously high California rates?

Food Hardship in DC

The District’s food hardship rate was 15.9% — or nearly one in six households. This puts it just about smack-dab in the middle of the state ranking. Though the local unemployment rate has dipped, the District’s food hardship rate was a bit higher last year than in 2012 — and its ranking much higher, i.e., comparatively worse.

As I’ve remarked before, ranking the District among states if problematic because it’s a city — and would be even if granted statehood. But the MSA ranking is no better because the District is part of an area that includes some very well-off suburbs.

This is the perennial problem — and more consequential — with the affordability criteria for publicly-subsidized housing programs. We see it here in the fact that the MSA the District belongs to has a food hardship rate of 13.1% — the fourth lowest among the large metro areas.

Policy Takeaways

We can look at food hardship from two angles. One is not enough income. Too many people still jobless (and here in the District, half of them longer than unemployment insurance benefits cover).

Deplorably low cash benefits from other sources, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income. Too many jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family — or even a single person. Etc.

The other angle is a not strong enough anti-hunger safety net. I call it that because what we have, more in some places than others, is broader than the major federally-funded nutrition assistance programs we usually think of. Think, for example, about our donor-supported food pantries and meal services.

FRAC, however, understandably focuses on the largest of the federal anti-hunger programs — SNAP (the food stamp program). Republicans are clearly hostile to SNAP in its current form — if not to the program itself, than to funding it at the level needed to make hunger as rare as it ought to be in this country.

We know that SNAP benefits are too low to cover a full month’s worth of groceries — let alone a mix that would make for a healthful diet. We know, as I remarked above, that many immigrants can’t get them.

We know that the work requirements imposed on able-bodied adults without dependents cut them off from SNAP, even though they can’t find work or get into a qualifying job training program.

The Farm Bill that Congress finally passed last year could have addressed these problems. Instead, we were lucky that it didn’t make the last worse. And now, House Republicans may actually take a stab at converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have envisioned for five years now.

It’s sad when anti-hunger advocates and allies in the broader human needs community have to invest their limited resources in defense of a program that could do more to alleviate food hardship.

Sadder that some unknown number of people in nearly 20 million* households didn’t always have enough to eat last year.

* This is my calculation, based on the Census Bureau’s 2014 count of households.



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