Why Did Food Programs For Low-Income DC Seniors Need A Last-Minute Save?

September 30, 2011

The last-minute save of the food assistance programs for low-income D.C. seniors left a question in my mind. Why, I asked, did we have a near-crisis anyway?

A followup column by Washington City Paper reporter Lydia DePillis provides a partial answer.

Seems that funding for the Greater Washington Urban League’s administrative services wasn’t identified in the Fiscal Year 2012 budget because it was awarded as a one-year grant, with options for renewal.

Unless I’m much mistaken, it wasn’t a line in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget either — perhaps for the same reason.

This explains why advocates weren’t aware that the new budget provided no local funds for administering the programs. Also why senior members of the Gray administration may not have known there might be an issue.

Responding, I assume, to a query from DePillis, a Department of Health spokesperson writes, “All subgrants are subject to funding availability. GWUL was advised last year that the previous funding .. would not be available in FY 2012.”

The Urban League’s Chief Operating Officer tells a different story. Says that they “actually found out about the disappearance of funds several months ago.” (This is an indirect quote in DePillis’s original column on the issue, but I see no reason to believe that it’s not very close to what the COO said.)

Whatever the timing, I don’t think DOH is off the hook.

Recent developments suggest that funding would have been available if the department had flagged the issue back when the Gray administration was developing its proposed budget.

The grant, after all, wasn’t to support some charitable program the Urban League had decided to initiate. It was to partially cover the costs of administering two federally-funded programs DOH is responsible for.

If the department thought the Urban League was spending more than needed, it could have laid the groundwork for a smooth transition to another third-party administrator. That also could have required some local funding.

Since DOH has just announced a new administrator, it’s fair to conclude that it had no assurance it could get the needed services for free when it decided no local funding was needed. Nor do we know at this point whether it will.*

Also fair to conclude that it saw no urgency in providing for some stop-gap measure that would allow low-income seniors to keep getting their grocery bags.

After all, the Urban League issued its notice to clients on or about September 16.

DOH clearly knew by then that the food programs wouldn’t operate unless something were done PDQ. But, so far as we know, it didn’t go directly to top-level people in the Gray administration. If it did, then they’re at fault too.

All we know for certain is that they jumped in only when alerted by DC Hunger and the grassroots messages it generated.

Or maybe only when the advocacy spun off into, among other things, a query from the director of the DC Council Committee on Human Services and negative publicity foreshadowed by the original DePillis column.

In short, it’s a fine thing that low-income seniors will continue to get their free groceries without interruption. But there never should have been a moment’s doubt about this.

* In response to a query, DOH informed me that it is still in negotiations with “the potential subgrantee” and that “until negotiations are finalized, discussions … will remain confidential.”


Quick Action Saves Food Programs For Low-Income DC Seniors

September 27, 2011

More than 6,600 seniors in the District of Columbia will benefit from two sources of food assistance in the upcoming fiscal year.

But they wouldn’t have without a timely intervention by DC Hunger Solutions and all of us who signed its petition. Because the District failed to budget a relatively small amount to keep the assistance flowing.

Here’s the story, with what seems to be a happy ending.

The main source of food assistance that just got saved comes from the federal government under the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. As its name suggests, the program provides bulk processed and packaged foods, which local agencies then distribute to low-income residents.

Here in the District, as elsewhere, most of them are seniors with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

They get monthly bags of nutritious foods worth about $52 each — a meaningful contribution to healthy eating for seniors who have to stretch very tight budgets in our high-cost city.

The other type of food assistance that was at risk comes from the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, also federally-funded. This program provides low-income seniors with coupons they can use to buy limited amounts of fresh produce and/or honey at local farmers’ markets.

The District limits the coupons to seniors who participate in the commodity food program and relies on the same administrative function to distribute them. Low-income seniors thus stood to lose an additional $30 per year in food assistance.

Why, you may ask, did the District have to come up with any money if the programs are federally funded?

The answer is that the federal funds don’t fully cover the District’s administrative costs.

More specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the commodities for the grocery bags, but only a fixed amount for administrative costs, based on each state’s projected caseload.

Here in the District, administrative costs exceed what the federal government provides. This, I’m told, is generally the case for states as well.

Grants for the farmers’ market coupons are based on a formula set by USDA. Agencies must spend at least 90% of their grant funds on reimbursements to farmers, market operators and the like for coupons used.

Here again they generally have to come up with some of their own funds to cover all the administrative costs.

The DC Department of Health has formal responsibility for administering the two programs. About 18 months ago, it decided to outsource the ongoing administrative tasks, e.g., verifying eligibility, distributing the groceries and coupons.

So it issued a grant to the Greater Washington Urban League, which was already operating a number of social services programs in the District, as well as in Prince Georges County, Maryland.

As with so many of these things, the District’s budget never had a line item for the grant. But funds were somehow found to renew it last year. These, if I understand correctly, covered about half the administrative costs and federal funds the remainder.

This year, the Urban League was told it would have to find another source for the administrative costs the District had paid for. It tried, but without success. So it notified its clients and volunteers that it would end its role in the program, effective September 30.

DOH apparently had no backup plan. Hence the urgent message from DC Hunger Solutions.

Well, Mayor Gray got the word — and sent out word to his people that he wants the programs continued.

E-mail from a top-level Executive Office appointee says “short-term solution” now, to be followed by “new management,” i.e., another nonprofit service provider.

So it seems that funds will be found to ensure that both the commodity food program and the farmers’ market coupon program will survive for another year.

And a good thing too. DC Hunger Solutions tells us that the small investment the District will make translates into about $4.1 million in food for low-income seniors who might otherwise go hungry — or at the very least, have to survive on a poorly-balanced diet.

Now, can someone in DOH explain why we had a near-crisis about this?

NOTE: I’m crediting — and I think rightly the work of DC Hunger Solutions and its allies, including petition signers. But it’s no coincidence that word of a solution went out shortly after Washington City Paper columnist Lydia DePillis put the issue in the public eye.

UPDATE: A followup posting delves into the final question above. It summarizes new information that’s been unearthed, as well as what we knew when I wrote this. As you’ll see, DOH still has some explaining to do.

House Appropriations Bill Takes Broad Aim At Food Assistance Programs

June 21, 2011

I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that the just-passed funding allocations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture are fine, except for the cut to WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

The House also took the knife to two other nationwide food assistance programs — the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

Neither of these, I think, is a household word. So here’s a brief overview of what the programs do and the cuts that the House just voted for — or rather, that House Republicans voted for, since they passed the bill with no Democratic support.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program provides, as its name suggests, food products — all packaged or canned — to supplement the diets of low-income people.

USDA purchases the products, selecting a mix that will compensate for common nutritional deficiencies. It distributes them to state agencies, which in turn distribute them in food packages — either directly or through nonprofit organizations.

At this point, 39 states and the District of Columbia participate in the program, along with Indian reservations in two states that don’t participate.

Eligibility is limited to two groups — the same population that’s eligible for WIC and seniors 60 years and older with household incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

Since pregnant women, mothers and their young children can’t participate in both WIC and CSFP, about 96% of participants are seniors. In Fiscal Year 2010, an average of 497,000 of them got a food package in any given month.

The program was then funded at $171.4 million. The House has cut its funding to $138.5 million — about 21% less than it’s getting now under the continuing resolution that’s this year’s substitute for a regular federal budget.

When the House passed its original version of the CR, the Food Research and Action Center warned that the proposed $20 million cut to CSFP would deny food packages to 81,000 low-income seniors.

The cut that’s now been approved would leave CFSP with $12.9 million less than what it would have had under the House CR. So it seems reasonable to suppose that an even larger number of seniors will lose their food packages — if the Senate doesn’t reject the cut.

These are seniors who, if living alone, have annual incomes at or below $14,157 — less than $1,180 per month. They’d reportedly have to pay about $50 a month to purchase the foods they now get in their CSFP packages.

A big bite out of a small budget that’s also got to cover all other basic needs.

TEFAP also provides food assistance in the form of commodities that have already been processed and packaged.

Here too, USDA purchases and distributes them to states, based on what states choose from a list that looks much like the CSFP list. USDA also gives states a variable quantity of bonus commodities, i.e., foods it buys to support producers’ prices when supply exceeds demand.

The commodities then go directly to soup kitchens, food pantries and other emergency food providers or to food banks that distribute them to such programs.

As I wrote last year, TEFAP had less for food purchases than it did in Fiscal Year 2009 — though food banks and the partner agencies they distribute to were reporting shortfalls.

The House has cut TEFAP funding by $63 million — $51 million less for commodity purchases and $12 million less for storage and distribution.

Feeding America and 46 other concerned organizations say that the emergency food system is already facing a projected 50% reduction in bonus commodities. The House cuts on top of this loss “will force many local agencies to reduce support for existing clients or turn new clients away.”

This at a time when need is extraordinarily high and the system already strained.

The House agriculture appropriations bill now goes to the Senate, which doesn’t have even a basic budget plan yet. What will happen next is anybody’s guess. Yet another continuing resolution wouldn’t surprise me.