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.

 

 


Fewer Hungry People Nationwide, But More in DC

May 24, 2012

Feeding America’s new Map the Meal report delivers some moderately good news about food insecurity for the nation as a whole. Contrariwise for the District of Columbia.

In 2010, the national food insecurity rate, i.e., the percent of people who couldn’t always afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families, dropped a bit — 16.1%, as compared to 16.6% in 2009.

This means that about 13.3 million fewer people didn’t struggle with hunger. Moderately good news only because more than 48.8 million still did.

As in 2009, 55% of food insecure people had household incomes below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard cut-off for food stamp eligibility and free school meals.*

An additional 16% of food insecure people had incomes below the maximum set for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and reduced-price school meals.

Using a methodology that’s too complex to summarize, Feeding America calculated the average amount it would cost to fill what it calls the meal gap, i.e., the total food budget shortfall.

The standard used for the meal costs was one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food plans. So filling the gap, in this report, means meals that are reasonably well-balanced and cheap.

Nationwide, we could have filled the gap for somewhat less than $21.2 billion — a mere $2.52 per meal.

The story is wholly different for District residents.

Between 2009 and 2010, the food insecurity rate rose by 0.7%. So while the local food insecurity rate was lower than the national in 2009, it was higher in 2010 — 16.5%.

The raw number of food insecure residents rose to 99.490 — an increase of 6,310 over 2009.

At the same time, the percent of food insecure residents eligible for the major federally-funded food assistance programs dropped from 63% to 45% — or by about 13,900 poor and near-poor people.

In other words, the District made significant progress at the low end of the income scale. But above 200% of the federal poverty line, the number increased by more than 20,200.

I find this big uptick rather puzzling.

The average meal cost, as Feeding America calculates it, is considerably higher than nationwide — $3.41 per meal. But that’s what it was the year before also.

And New York City, where the average meal cost is even higher, has a much lower percent of food insecure residents above the cut-off for food assistance programs — even though the cut-off is lower there.

This much is sure. And it’s a point Feeding America wants to make generally. A whole lot of food insecure people can get no relief from hunger except from nonprofit dining rooms and food pantries.

In the District, it’s well over half of all food insecure residents — 54,720 in 2010.

Food prices have increased and are expected to go even higher. Housing costs are rising. And I don’t have to say anything about petrol, do I?

Nor about the unemployment rate, which here in the District is still well over 9%. A tough job market. And long-term unemployment benefits that will nevertheless shrink.

So our nonprofit food services — and the Capital Area Food Bank that helps supply them — will be sorely pressed to keep up with rising needs.

They’ll need all the help they can get from TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides free frozen, processed and packaged foods that go through food banks to direct providers.

How much help they’ll get is an open question.

The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee has approved the maximum authorized for ongoing TEFAP food purchases, plus about the same for storage and distribution as the program is getting now.

The House of Representatives, however, seems bound and determined to pass a budget below the level agreed to last August.

For its Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, this means a cap about $1.4 billion lower than what the Senate subcommittee worked with.

House appropriators — and ultimately the Republican majority as a whole — chose to cut TEFAP by $48 million last year. But they ultimately agreed to the higher figure the Senate wanted.

One can only hope that Senate negotiators hang tough again, if needs be. And need be likely for TEFAP as well as many other safety net programs.

* Recall that many states and the District have availed themselves of a legal — and endangered — option to enroll households with somewhat higher incomes.


DC Reports 72 Percent of Emergency Food Needs Unmet

January 9, 2012

The headlined figure is erroneous and other D.C. figures doubtful. Brief explanation in the update at the end.

For the first time in at least four years, the District of Columbia is represented in the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual report on hunger and homelessness in America’s cities.

We learn some interesting — and disturbing — things about hunger in the District. We’ve already gotten more detailed (and more accurate) information on local homelessness.*

So here’s about hunger, with some prefatory remarks to put the figures in perspective.

About the Survey

The reported figures reflect the District’s responses to a survey that the Conference distributes to all cities represented on its hunger and homelessness task force.

This year, 29 cities responded — some very large, some quite small. And some very large cities, e.g., Miami and New York City, absent.

I mention this because, as the report acknowledges, the survey results aren’t necessarily representative of conditions nationwide — not even those in the Conference’s 1,139 members.

They do, however, provide some context for what the District reported about needs for emergency food assistance, i.e., requests for take-home foods at local pantries and meals at dining rooms for low-income residents.

These are how the survey measures hunger — another reason we should be cautious about conclusions.

Key Figures

Between September 1, 2010 and August 31, 2011:

  • Requests for emergency food assistance in the District increased 24%.
  • This is 8.5% higher than the average increase for the 25 other cities that provided a figure. The average, however, masks a huge variation — from a 40% increase in Kansas City to an 11% decrease in San Francisco.
  • Of the people requesting assistance from District sources, 45% were elderly, 40% were in families and 30% were employed.
  • For all responding cities, the average for the elderly was just 19% — and this includes the egregiously high percent in the District. Averages for families and employed people were respectively 51% and 26%.
  • Local food pantries and dining rooms were unable to meet 72% of the demand for emergency food assistance. They reportedly had to turn people away, cut back on the amount of food they distributed or served and/or reduce the number of times people could visit each month.
  • The average for the 13 other cities that could estimate unmet need was slightly under 24%.
  • Yet the District reported a 25% increase in the number of pounds of food distributed — 30 million in all.
  • The increase was the highest reported. However, nine cities reported more pounds of distributed food, including two considerably smaller than D.C.
  • The District’s emergency food assistance budget, as reported, increased to $14 million — up by 17%. This reflects funds from both public and private sources, but not the dollar value of food donations, assuming survey directions were followed.
  • The median average for reported budgets was about $3.8 million, but the range is so large that I doubt all cities calculated the same way.

Prospects for 2012

The District expects requests for emergency food assistance to increase substantially in 2012, as do nine of the other reporting cities.

It also expects resources to decrease substantially. Eleven other cities do as well, while an additional 11 expect moderate decreases.

Hard to know what to make of these diverse projections. We do, however, know that the District has its eye on Capitol Hill.

The biggest challenges it cites are all cuts in federal support for safety net programs — namely, but perhaps not only the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, WIC and the food stamp program.

These programs fared better than one might have expected, especially given what the House Republican majority had passed. So did the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which a number of surveyed cities were concerned about.

Yet the figures the District reported suggest large unmet challenges with the funding and other resources now available.

Are our local nonprofits — and the Capital Area Food Bank, which helps supply them — really unable to meet even a third of emergency food needs?

* The District reported that “homeless shelters did not turn away homeless families.” This may be technically true because homeless families generally have to seek shelter through an intake center. But even the DC Department of Human Services acknowledges that homeless families were denied shelter, even if they had no place to stay.

UPDATE: The Conference of Mayors’ report identifies the Capital Area Food Bank as a primary contact for the District’s figures on emergency food assistance. Page Dohl Crosland, Senior Director for Marketing and Communications at CAFB, has informed me that the unmet need figure is inaccurate.

CAFB provided the Gray administration with figures, but they were generally for the entire Washington Metro area. Someone apparently misinterpreted the numbers it put in the unmet need part of the survey form. CAFB estimates the unmet need for the Metro area as a whole at 25%.


Acute Food Needs Now Monthly Events For More Than Three Million U.S. Households

October 25, 2011

Food pantry visits are becoming “the new normal,” reports Feeding America, the country’s largest charitable food distribution organization.

The “new normal” here refers to a shift in the role food pantries play in helping low-income people feed themselves and their families.

People used to seek help from food pantries when they had what Feeding America refers to as “temporary acute food needs.”

Now, it says, a majority of clients use pantries “as part of their long-term strategies to supplement monthly food shortfalls.” In other words, “acute food needs” aren’t occasional emergencies. They’re regular, foreseeable events.

Feeding America has come to this conclusion by analyzing client responses to a survey it conducted in 2009.

According to the new analysis:

  • More than half (54%) of the clients surveyed had used a pantry for at least six months during the past year.
  • More than a third of them (36%) had used a pantry at least once a month during the past year.
  • These frequent users reported using a pantry for, on average, more than 28 consecutive months.

We learn two different, perhaps related facts about these recurrent and/or frequent pantry clients.

First, 58% of them received SNAP (food stamp) benefits — another clear indication that the benefits often don’t cover the costs of a month’s worth of food.

Second, a disproportionate number of recurrent users were seniors. One out of three of all recurrent users was 60 or older. And 56% of them were long-term recurrent users.

This too sheds some light on the food stamp program.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest report on SNAP participation trends, only 34% of eligible seniors, i.e., those at least 60 years old, were enrolled in Fiscal Year 2009. This is 38% lower than for the eligible population as a whole.

The low participation rate for seniors continues a long-term trend. Studies have produced a variety of explanations, summarized by the Food Research and Action Center in a broader review of research on access and access barriers to getting food stamps.

Some of the barriers deter participation by other groups as well, e.g., the stigma attached to “welfare,” complex applications processes, difficulties in getting to a food stamp office, long waiting times once there, the need to go back and wait recurrently to again prove eligibility.

But one barrier stands out for seniors in particular. They decide the hassles just aren’t worth the small amount they can get.

USDA’s recently-released report on the characteristics of SNAP households shows that, for most, the benefits are truly small.

Of the fewer than 2.9 million seniors who got food stamps in 2010, 80% lived alone. Their average monthly benefit was $119 — or about $1.30 per meal.

This might explain why some low-income seniors decide to rely on their own scarce resources, supplemented by free food from a friendly pantry rather than cope with the hassles involved in getting food stamps.

Also why seniors who do get food stamps would have to develop an anti-hunger strategy that includes regular visits to a pantry.

Young and old food pantry clients alike face greater risks of hunger in the months to come.

As Feeding America notes, food prices are rising. Food companies are adopting new efficiencies and thus have less surplus to donate.

Bad economic times have reduced charitable donations from other sources. Also triggered cutbacks in funding by some state and local governments.

And to top it all, Congress has cut funding for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program by 40%, leaving $80 million less for local homeless services programs, including food pantries.

The House of Representatives has approved a $63 million cut for TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides about 25% of the foods that Feeding America’s food bank partners distribute to emergency providers like pantries.

Maybe hope for TEFAP in the Senate, though ultimately the House would have to back down.

Still and all, “the beginning of the ‘perfect storm,'” as Feeding America says.