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.



Serving Good Food to Poor People Makes Good Sense

May 28, 2009

Columnist Julie Gunlock has taken out after dining rooms for the homeless that serve good food. This, she says, shows that some of the charitable organizations that are receiving our taxpayer dollars don’t need them.

The trigger for this rant was Michelle Obama’s visit to Miriam’s Kitchen. As the Washington Post reported, she served mushroom risotto. The reporter was told that “if anyone brings us donuts, Steve [the chef] throws them away. It is not good for our guests…. Steve wants our guests to have the same experience as if they were paying $30 for a meal.”

Gunlock twists this to mean that Miriam’s Kitchen is–or wants to become–a place where poor people can get $30 meals for free. Of course, it means nothing of the sort.

She’s already taken a lot of justifiable flak. But I want to weigh in because there are larger issues here than one writer’s willful distortions.

One issue, of course, is the view that dining rooms and food pantries should feed poor people as cheaply as possible. After all, shouldn’t they stretch their resources by serving the lowest-cost foods they can, including whatever is donated?

There’s certainly a cost issue here. But it’s not as simple as the cost of mushroom risotto versus hot dogs and Velveeta. As everyone should know by now, there are significant long-term social and economic costs associated with unhealthful diets–obesity, related chronic health problems, unemployment, etc. So cutting corners on food assistance will ratchet up the costs of other services.

Another issue is how poor people feel when they’re fed. Gunlock apparently thinks they should be satisfied with whatever they get. But, like the rest of us, they recognize that the quality of what they’re offered and how it’s served reflects a level of care. This is very important for organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen.

Because Miriam’s Kitchen does more than serve meals. It also offers case management services and a program that brings clients into a supportive, therapeutic community. Serving good-tasting, nutritious meals in a dignified setting builds trust so that clients will be open to receiving these other services.

Miriam’s Kitchen isn’t the only local food source for poor people that attends to quality rather than just trying to fill them up. For example, So Others Might Eat (SOME) serves vegetables with every meal and fresh fruit to snack on later. It too gives priority to serving clients “with dignity and respect,” noting that its dining rooms are often a gateway to the other services it provides.

Bread for the City also integrates a feeding program with a range of other services. Last year, it launched a multi-pronged nutrition initiative, including an improved nutrition profile for the free groceries it distributes.

Bread is one of the largest partners of the Capital Area Food Bank–a major food source for nonprofits in the Washington metro area. So when Bread told CAFB what new items it wanted, CAFB started stocking them. Now other CAFB member agencies purchase them too.

Which leads me to my final point. Dining rooms and food pantries can–and do–influence what they’re able to serve. If they let it be known that they won’t serve donuts, then people who bring donuts will stop.

Some may not bring anything else because they just want to dispose of stale donuts–and take a tax deduction. But others will respond with donations that meet the organization’s guidelines. Look at what Chef Steve says about how he transformed his kitchen.

If enough charitable feeding programs let their food banks know that they want to purchase healthier products, they’re likely to get them. And who knows? If enough food banks start stocking a healthier mix of products, they might have some impact on the entire food supply chain.

Could WIC Promote Healthy Corner Stores?

April 30, 2009

Fellow blogger Greg Bloom at Bread for the City has asked whether the WIC program could be leveraged with programs like DC Hunger Solution’s Healthy Corner Store initiative to boost demand for more healthful foods.

An intriguing question. So let me try to answer.

Of course, the first step would be to ensure that corner stores in low-income neighborhoods are authorized to accept WIC coupons. Those DC Hunger Solutions interviewed are not. If they were, then the nutrition information and education WIC recipients are supposed to receive could be expanded to specifically address opportunities for healthful choices at corner stores.

Focusing on the WIC authorization issue would make a lot of sense. As I recently wrote, the federal WIC food package has been significantly expanded. The District is in the process of expanding its approved foods list accordingly.

So by the time corner stores got authorized, they would be able to accept WIC coupons for a wide variety of foods. And, of course, WIC recipients would have more convenient places to use their coupons. However, current vendor requirements pose significant barriers for a typical corner store. This is something the D.C. Health Department should look into.

Greg also asks about initiatives to support purchases at farmers’ markets, citing the Wholesome Wave Foundation’s double value coupon initiative.

At least one local government has adopted an approach similar to the programs Wholesome Wave is funding. New York City issues “health bucks” coupons, worth $2 each, to residents in low-income communities with high obesity rates. These are redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers’ markets.

Food stamp recipients get an additional “health bucks” coupon for every $5 in food stamps they spend at a farmers’ market. I don’t see why a similar initiative couldn’t include purchases with WIC coupons as well as food stamps. Something D.C. could consider.

That said, I doubt whether such an initiative could have a major impact on the diets of many low-income D.C. residents. As with full-service grocery stores, the problem is location. There are only two farmers’ markets east of the Anacostia River, where the greatest concentrations of low-income people live. But here too building demand might increase supply.

The District has taken a first step by becoming part of the federal WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. Under this program, D.C. WIC participants can get five $5 checks for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases at authorized farmers’ markets. Hardly enough for a year-round healthful diet. But, hey, every bit helps.

Obesity and Poverty

January 20, 2009

The Executive Director of Bread for the City has written an open letter to the Washington Post in response to its recent article on obesity and hunger. The letter reports recent steps Bread has taken to help its clients “not only eat, but eat well”–nutrition counseling and healthy cooking classes, improvements in the nutrition profile of the foods it provides.

It’s good to see Bread for the City taking the lead on this important issue and especially to learn that it’s practicing what it preaches. But, as its letter says, high obesity rates among poor people are not something Bread and other nonprofits can tackle alone. And they must be tackled because obesity is linked to serious (and costly) chronic health problems, including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.

Bread calls on the new Administration to expand access to food assistance programs in a way that prioritizes nutrition. As the Post reports, the incoming Secretary of Agriculture seems ready to propose higher nutrition standards for in-school meals. These would certainly help. But, as everyone knows, a more comprehensive approach is needed.

Of course, obesity is not restricted to poor people. It’s a major public health issue for the entire population. However, the federal government and state and local governments too have greater opportunities to influence what poor people do and don’t do. They can exercise this influence sensibly and respectfully or otherwise.

The federal government already shapes the diets of some poor people with its list of foods state agencies can authorize under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Now some are proposing that it restrict use of food stamps to healthy foods and beverages.

This idea is fraught with problems. An article in USDA’s Amber Waves identifies some of them. As it indicates, there’s no easy way to draw a bright white line between healthy and unhealthy food products.  Nor is it certain that the resulting restrictions would meaningfully change purchasing behavior. To these practical issues, I would add the paternalistic coercion that would be involved. Uncle Sam knows what’s best for you and is going to see to it that you live right.

It would make more sense, I think, to look at the obesity issue holistically and design a variety of coordinated programs that would empower poor people to maintain a balanced diet. Here are four basic questions that can trigger solutions:

  • Do poor people have the resources to stave off hunger–a possible trigger for overeating and fat storage?
  • Do they have the resources to buy a variety of healthful foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables?
  • Do they have ready access to sources of a variety of healthful foods?
  • Do they have the know-how to maintain a balanced diet on a limited budget?

Despite a number of promising initiatives, the answer to all these questions is a resounding No.

So there’s a lot of work here for governments at all levels and for private sector businesses, nutritionists, other health professionals and nonprofits, including Bread. We’ve enough experience to know they’ll achieve most if they collaborate.