Why So Many People at Risk of Hunger in DC and Nationwide?

May 19, 2016

We may all be Washington, D.C., as the Mayor’s slogan implies, but we’re not all sufficiently fed. In fact, 90,900 (13.8%) of us don’t always have enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle because we can’t afford it, according to Feeding America’s latest Map the Meal Gap report.*

The “us” here includes 29,820 children (nearly 26%) of those living in the District in 2014, the most recent year Feeding America could get data for. They’re not necessarily underfed, but they live in food insecure households and so are, at the very least, at risk of hunger.

Troublesome as these figures are, they’re better than those for the prior two years — especially 2013, when the food insecurity rate for all District residents was 15% and, for children, 30.5%.

On the other hand, the child food insecurity rate is 5% higher than the national rate, though the overall rate is slightly lower.

What can we tease out to explain such relatively high food insecurity rates in the District? First off — and this is true everywhere — families with children are more likely to be hard up for food money than families without them.

They’re still short, even with SNAP (food stamp) benefits and other federally-funded nutrition assistance, e.g., WIC, free or reduced-price school meals. Or so it seems.

Here in the District, nearly three-quarters of food insecure residents have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line — the threshold Feeding America uses because the District has taken advantage of an option that allows residents with incomes this high to have their eligibility for SNAP considered.

Doesn’t mean they’ll all qualify. Their income, after deductions must still be no greater than 100% of the FPL But broad-based categorical eligibility, as the option is called, does seem to make a difference.

For children, Feeding America uses 185% of the FPL — the maximum income for WIC and reduced-price school meals. By this measure, somewhat over two-thirds of food insecure children qualify for nutrition assistance.

The flip side of these figures, of course, is that a quite high percent of food insecure District residents, including children have household incomes too high for any federally-funded nutrition assistance.

Both those aided and those not face a problem that the Feeding America report is really about — what it calls the meal gap, i.e., the difference between the per-meal cost of food and what individuals and families can afford.

It does some complex number-crunching to arrive at the gap — or more precisely, gaps. The end result for the nation as a whole is $2.89.

The meal gap in the District is notably higher — $3.49 per meal or more than $73 a week, assuming three meals a day, every day, as Feeding America does. This surely goes a long way toward explaining the high food insecurity rates.

On the one hand, as I’ve said, many food insecure District residents have incomes to high to qualify for SNAP, which would supplement their own budgets.

The city is also home to residents who’ve got incomes well below the threshold, but don’t qualify because they’re undocumented immigrants — or documented, but haven’t lived in the country long enough.

On the other hand, those who do qualify won’t have enough to cover the costs of reasonably healthful meals all month long. A parent with two children, for example, can get at most $511 a month — or about $1.87 per meal for each family member.

Closing the local meal gap would have cost roughly $56 million two years ago — and more than $24.5 billion nationwide. That’s a lot of money. Which tells us why Feeding America maps the gap.

The organization, as you may know, supplies food to a national network of food banks. Some of the food comes from federal agencies, it says. The rest — and far greater portion — comes from private-sector sources, e.g., food processors, grocery chains and monetary donations it uses to buy food.

The banks, in turn, channel the food to nonprofits that serve prepared meals and/or distribute groceries to poor and near-poor people in the area they serve. They too may get food from private-sector sources and buy more, using cash or cash-equivalent donations.

And they may get some from the Emergency Food Assistance Program — a variable mix that the U.S. Department of Agriculture parcels out to state agencies and they, in turn, to the banks and/or community action agencies.

Here in the District, 132 pantries, dining rooms, other programs that serve meals and/or snacks and the DC Central Kitchen, which prepares meals for some of them, depend in part on what they receive from the Capital Area Food Bank.

Narrowing the meal gap will obviously require more food — and more money to not only buy it, but distribute, store, prepare and deliver it.

We surely can’t look to this Congress, though we can hope it doesn’t widen the gap. That’s what House Republicans would do if they succeeded in converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have repeatedly envisioned.

It’s what their latest plan would probably do, even without the block grant, because it puts a tighter squeeze on non-defense programs that depend on annual spending choices. This already-shrunken part of the budget includes WIC, parts of TEFAP and several sources of funds for free or low-cost home-delivered meals.

Highly doubtful we’ll see the cuts this year. But it’s obvious that the meal gap will remain — and probably grow, as it already has — without more public funds to shrink it.

* The food insecurity rates Feeding America reports for states and the District are slightly higher than those USDA reported. This apparently is because the agency uses two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small size of its survey sample.


Hunger in America Widespread and Frequent, New Report Shows

September 8, 2014

About one in seven people in America — 46.5 million in all — depend, at least in part, on nonprofit feeding programs to stave off hunger. This is one of many, many things we can learn from Feeding America’s report on its latest survey of the agencies it helps supply and their clients.

These many, many things gel into different stories. I’ll focus on one of them here — the fact that in this very wealthy country of ours, a very large number of people can’t always afford to eat healthfully, SNAP (the food stamp program) notwithstanding.

But first a few words about the programs themselves. About two-thirds of the more than 58,000 programs that Feeding America helps supply through its food bank network provide groceries.

Most of the others provide foods already prepared. They include so-called soup kitchens, meals delivered to the homes of elderly and disabled people and food services for homeless shelters, other residential facilities, senior centers and daycare centers for children.

Some provide meals and/or snacks to kids who participate in after-school activities, either as their exclusive service or in addition to the aforementioned.

So the programs reach diverse people in diverse ways. Feeding America’s new report reflects responses from more than 60,000 of them.

Some Key Facts About Program Clients

In some respects, it’s hard to generalize about the beneficiaries of the feeding programs because, as I said, they’re a diverse group — and the report is chock-full of data points. For those of us who attend to the poverty dialogue, if we should call it that, a couple of things jump out.

More program clients are white than belong to any other race/ethnicity group — 43.4% of the total and nearly half of the prepared-meal recipients.

Among the adults, 72.5% have, at most, a high school diploma or the equivalent. But 20.5% have at least some college education — and 5.7% a four-year college degree or higher. Slightly over 10% were enrolled in school at the time the survey was conducted.

Nearly 54% of all clients lived in a household where someone was employed during the year. The percent is considerably higher — 70.6% — for households with children.

Yet unemployment and under-employment are clearly problems. Only 34.3% of households included any member who’d worked at least six months out of the last twelve. And only 43% included someone who’d worked at least 30 hours a week.

Both these percents are higher for households with children — 48.9% and 47% respectively. Yet obviously lack of paying work helps account for their food assistance needs.

Ongoing Financial Hardships

Several years ago, Feeding America reported that visits to food pantries had “become the new normal.” This is apparently still true. The number of times individuals and families received groceries and/or meals was well over eight times greater than the number served — 389.2 million over the course of a year.

What this tell us, of course, is that a great many weren’t coping with a one-time emergency. Both the employment figures and others indicate ongoing financial hardships.

About half of the households the grocery and meal programs served were officially poor, i.e. living below the federal poverty line. They include 11.7% who reported no income at all during the past twelve months.

An additional 33.2% had incomes between 101% and 185% of the FPL — the cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

The median annual income for all households served was $9,175 — less than a fifth of the median for all U.S. households. The median for those with children was somewhat higher — $11,721. But because these households are larger, 77% lived below the FPL.

All but 6.8% of client households lived in what the report characterizes as a “nontemporary housing arrangement,” e.g., an apartment, a house they owned, were paying for or sharing.

But that doesn’t mean they were all stably housed. Nearly 27% had lived in at least two places during the past year. Somewhat over 22% started doubling-up with family members or someone else. And 15.5% had been foreclosed on or evicted within the last five years.

What About Food Stamps?

Notwithstanding their need for food assistance, only 54.8% of client households received SNAP benefits. This seems a low participation rate. And the survey data don’t altogether explain it.

All we know for sure is that about 28% of the households had incomes above the standard eligibility cut-off. But most states and the District of Columbia have higher gross income cut-offs now.

The report suggests that some others might have had savings and/or other assets above the very low limit that some states still impose.

Some probably didn’t qualify because of their immigration status. Federal law bars not only undocumented immigrants, but most of those who’ve been in the country legally for less than five years.

It’s still the case that more households probably could have qualified for SNAP and for various reasons, chose not to apply. The benefits obviously wouldn’t have enabled all them to keep food on the table, however.

About 86% of the client households enrolled in SNAP reported that they use them up in three weeks or less. The same was true for 88.8% of the SNAP households with children.

Struggles, Even With the Feeding Programs

Large numbers of households had to make trade-offs between food and some other necessity — or perhaps multiple necessities.

For example, 57.1% reported having to choose between paying for food or for housing at least once during the prior year. Percents were considerably higher for other trade-offs — nearly 66% for medical care, 66.5% for transportation and 69.3% for utilities.

For many, these weren’t one-time hard choices. More than 30% reported making them every month, except for housing. And that percent wasn’t much lower.

These weren’t the only types of choices households made. Well over 78% — and 83.5% of those with children — reported buying “inexpensive, unhealthy food.” More than half reported knowingly eating food past its expiration date.

And 40% said they watered down food and/or drink. The percent is higher for households with children — 44.8%.

So there you have it — or rather, some select pieces of it. That we should have such hunger in America today is, to my mind, simply shameful — and a call to action on various fronts.


Nonprofits Part of the Hunger Solution, But No Substitute for SNAP

September 26, 2013

We’re coming to the end of Hunger Action Month, initiated by Feeding America to build support for ending hunger in our country.

House Republicans celebrated, as I’m sure you know, by voting to deny SNAP (food stamp) benefits to about 3.8 million low-income people.

A few days later and a couple of miles away, the National Cathedral held a hunger forum for its congregants and anyone else who chose to attend or, as I did, watch the live stream on their computer.

One of the speakers, George Jones, spoke briefly about the experience of Bread for the City, where he’s CEO. More people are coming to the organization’s two food pantries, he said. They’re now serving about 5,000 households a month.

We also heard from representatives of smaller, faith-based feeding programs. In the Street Church project, for example, volunteers prepare and serve sandwiches in a downtown park where homeless people gather.

Volunteers in the National Cathedral’s community also prepare sandwiches — these at home — and drop them off, along with fresh fruit for delivery to a mobile soup kitchen operated by Martha’s Table, which also provides bags of groceries to people who’d otherwise go hunger.

Now, we need these projects — and the many others here in the District and in communities nationwide. We would need them even if SNAP benefits were safe, which they aren’t, despite the likelihood that the Senate will reject the harsh, sweeping House cuts.

As I’ve often (too often?) said, SNAP benefits are already too low to cover the monthly costs of reasonably healthful, balanced meals — or in some cases, any meals at all.

We need also to consider that far from everyone eligible for SNAP participates — about one in four, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Lots of reasons for this, as a FRAC research review indicates. Among them is the very low benefit for a single person — currently no more than about $2.19 per meal. Not worth the hassle, some figure — or the stigma, all too often reinforced by checkers and other customers at the grocery store.

For seniors living alone, as most who received SNAP did, the average benefit in 2011 was even lower — $122 a month or roughly $1.34 per meal. This, as I’ve previously noted, helps explain why a Feeding America survey found that a third of all regular pantry clients were 60 or over.

Consider too that not all low-income people in this country are eligible for SNAP. The same law that ended welfare as we knew it established a five-year waiting period for virtually all adult immigrants who came here through proper legal channels.

No benefits ever, of course, for immigrants without the proper papers, though they and their children have the same needs for food as us born-in-America folks.

Resources aren’t the only issue. Access to full-service grocery stores is also often a problem for low-income people — a combination of distance and the need to rely on public transportation.

There are only two supermarkets in the District’s poorest east-of-the-river area served by one of Bread for the City’s pantries, Jones noted.

Put all these problems together with persistently high unemployment rates — recently 14.9% and 22.4% in the District’s two poorest wards.

Add both under-employment and jobs that don’t pay enough to live on and it’s understandable why nearly one in three District households with children didn’t always have enough money for food, according to FRAC’s latest food hardship report.

So it’s heartening that so many nonprofits step into the breach with free meals and/or food to take home. And heartening to know that so many individuals contribute the funds and voluntary services they depend on.

But, as Jones said of his organization’s pantries, they’re “designed to augment food stamps.”

This is a far cry from Congressman Paul Ryan’s claim that the radical cuts he put into the House budget plan — including $135 billion to SNAP — are needed because “the federal government is encroaching on the institutions of civil society … sapping their energy and assuming their role.”

Feeding America reports that the House SNAP cuts, plus the imminent benefits cut for everyone still eligible would result in the loss of about 3.4 billion meals for low-income people in 2014 alone.

This is more than all the meals that its network of food banks distributed through pantries and soup kitchens in the current year.

Here in the District, the Capital Area Food Bank is part of that network. About 250 nonprofits here rely at least in part on the fresh produce and others foods it distributes.

They include Bread for the City, Martha’s Table and others well known in our local community, as well as many that aren’t — except, of course, to the people they feed and the people who make that possible.

So it’s hardly the case that federal safety net programs like SNAP have sapped the energy our civil society institutions — here or nationwide.

It’s rather that they can’t serve as the hunger safety net for the millions of low-income children, seniors, people with disabilities, workers and those who’d work if a job were available who now rely on SNAP to keep food on the table — at least most of the time.

And they’re the first to say that.


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.