Time to Celebrate the Child and Adult Care Food Program

March 22, 2012

Did you know we’re celebrating National Child and Adult Care Food Program Week? I’ll bet you thought it was only National Poison Awareness Week. Odd bedfellows these.

Anyway, National CACFP Week it is. So I thought I’d try to find out more about this lesser-known, by important part of the federal nutrition safety net we’re supposed to be celebrating.

Discoveries …

Like most, but not all federal nutrition assistance programs, CACFP is a so-called entitlement.

In other words, funding for the program is based on the costs of meals and snacks recipients serve rather than whatever Congress decides to approve in any given year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes the funds as grants to state agencies — usually state education agencies — according to a formula that’s way too complicated to summarize.

The state agencies then enter into agreements with child care providers, Head Start programs, recreation centers, emergency shelters day care facilities for seniors and adults with disabilities, etc.

The programs have to serve meals and snacks that meet nutrition standards set by USDA. These help ensure that children and vulnerable adults get some reasonably well-balanced nutritious meals and/or snacks on a regular basis.

Programs for children have to be located in high-poverty areas, i.e., where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, or enroll a certain percent of children who’d qualify.

Family income for free school meals must be no higher than 130% of the applicable federal poverty line and, for reduced-price meals, no higher than 185% of the FPL. CACFP thus focuses on children who are definitely low-income.

Though CACFP can subsidize meals and snacks for a variety of programs, child day care centers are the single largest type supported.

In December 2011, for example, CACFP subsidized nearly 143,000 meals. About 68% of them were for children in day care centers. Most of the rest — just under 32% — went to children in home day care.

The Food Research and Action Center reports that about 3.3 million children — mostly preschool age — benefited from the program in 2010.

This is about 3% more than in 2009 and a whopping 40% more than in 1996, the base year FRAC uses.

All told, child care providers served well over 1.8 million subsidized meals and snacks in 2010 — 77% of them at no cost to the parents.

An additional 66.7 million meals and snacks helped feed adults in day care centers — all but about 9.5% of them free.

But enough with the figures. Bottom line is that CACFP clearly plays a key role in our safety net.

Low-income children and adults get fed when they might otherwise go hungry. And every meal CACFP subsidizes is one less meal that families have to stretch their food stamp benefits to cover — or pay for out of their own pockets.

At the same time, as USDA says, the program helps make day care affordable since providers would surely have to charge higher rates if they had to pay full cost for all meals. In this respect, it helps make working affordable, as well as eating.

CACFP also supports after-school programs that help low-income youth succeed in school, broaden their horizons, get some healthy physical activity — and stay out of trouble while their parents work.

Kids are hungry by mid-afternoon. Snacks are essential — maybe a full meal too, especially for youth in programs that run till early evening. Also for those who won’t find dinner waiting, no matter what time they get home.

Feeding these hungry, growing kids is a large expense for hard-pressed public schools, parks and recreation departments and nonprofits.  But at least CACFP can now subsidize suppers as well as snacks nationwide — thanks to the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act.

So, yes, let’s celebrate the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

And remember the good it does whenever we’re told that safety net spending must be cut to reduce the deficit because we can’t possibly touch defense or, heaven forfend, raise taxes.

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%.

Some Policy Lessons From USDA’s Food Security Report

September 21, 2011

No one, I suppose, needs to be reminded that public benefits programs are in the bull’s eye. Federal nutrition assistance programs are no exception

Funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) has been cut, and the House of Representatives has voted to trim it further. It’s approved cuts for other food assistance programs as well.

The House budget plan would also radically reduce funding for SNAP (the food stamp program) — this by converting it into a block grant.

And who knows what will happen when the Super Committee starts looking for budget savings to meet its $1.5 trillion target?

All these threats make the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest food security report especially timely.

Because the results tell us that the main federal nutrition assistance programs are working — not as well as they might, but well enough to keep hunger at bay in a very high percentage of low-income households.

In 2010, the percent of households that experienced food insecurity remained essentially flat — 14.5% as compared to 14.7% in 2009. The difference, USDA says, is not statistically significant.

What the rate means is that an estimated 85.5% of households had “enough food for an active, healthy life” for all members at all times during the year — virtually the same as in 2008, the first full year of our Great Recession.

This in itself is noteworthy.

More noteworthy is the fact that the percent of households experiencing very low food insecurity, i.e., those with such limited resources that some member(s) sometimes had to cut back on or altogether skip meals, dropped from 5.7% to 5.4%.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that the biggest declines were among households with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, i.e.,  households that could have been eligible for one or more of the main food assistance programs.

Those with children, for example, generally would have been eligible for WIC and/or free or reduced-price school meals. Their very low food security rate dropped from 2.9% to 2.1%.

This is hardly to say that all would be well if we could just protect the key nutrition assistance programs from the cost-cutting impulses of those in Congress who view federal “welfare” spending as a budget-busting failure.

Consider, for example, that food insecurity rates were less than half the 2010 rate for all three years before the recession set in. Or that barely more than half the households with incomes low enough to be eligible received food stamp benefits for any part of the year.

Of those that got them for the entire year, 49.3% still suffered from low or very low food security. So it seems reasonable to suppose that the benefits didn’t cover the costs of as much food as they needed.

And, indeed, we see that better-off households, i.e., those with incomes over 185% of the FPL, spent 30% more on food than the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket USDA uses to calculate food stamp benefits.

Households at the upper end of the eligibility range might have had resources to fill the gap. The poorer would probably have had to make do with less food than an “active, healthy life” requires.

Thus we see much higher food insecurity rates among populations with the highest poverty rates.

For example, the food insecurity rate for single mothers with children was 20.6% higher than the overall household rate. For black households, it was 10.6% higher and for Hispanic households, 11.7% higher.

Yet other data suggest that poverty alone may not account for disparities among food insecurity rates.

We see big differences among the three-year rates that USDA uses to compensate for relatively low state-level survey samples.

In 2008-10, the averages ranged from 19.4% in Mississippi and 18.8% in Texas (knew you’d want that one) to 7.1% in North Dakota. They don’t align neatly with differences in poverty rates.

The District of Columbia, for example, had higher poverty rates than the overall U.S. rates for the three-year period. Yet its average food insecurity rate was lower than the national average — 13% as compared to 14.6% nationwide. Its very low food security rate was also lower — 4.5% as compared to 5.6%.

The message here is that food security hinges in part on state and local policies. It’s hardly coincidental, I think, that USDA had to intervene in Texas because the government had made choices that created huge backlogs in food stamp applications.

The largest threats now, however, seem to be at the federal level. Spending cuts in nutrition programs will affect low-income people in every state. They’ll also further depress consumer demand — and thus cause more job losses.

Which will, of course, drive up the number of households that can’t afford to keep enough food on the table for a healthy life.