Food Hardship Still Common Nationwide and in DC

April 27, 2015

The Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship report delivers some moderately good news about households nationwide. But the news is only comparatively good — and pretty awful for households in some parts of the country.

How FRAC Reports Food Hardship

As I’ve written before, FRAC uses survey data Gallop collects on an ongoing basis from a large sample of households. They’re asked, among other things, “Have there been times in the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

A “yes” is what FRAC refers to as food hardship. It’s roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food insecurity. But obviously, there’s more than just insecurity in not being able to afford enough food.

FRAC, indeed, entitles its report How Hungry Is America? The answers actually tell what percent of American households were hungry at least some of last year — nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

The report also includes household hunger rates for each of the 100 largest metro areas. These combine survey data for 2013 and 2014 so they’ll be reasonably accurate for what are mostly smaller populations.

The Big Food Hardship Picture

More than one in six households — 17.2% — experienced food hardship in 2014, according to the survey responses. This is hardly a figure to crow about. But it’s the first time the rate has been this low since the recession set in.

It hit 19.5% during the last four months of 2008, then varied from nearly as high to nearly as low as the latest rate. The latest rate held constant throughout the year, as apparently the earlier dips didn’t.

We see much more variation among states. The 2014 food hardship rate was over 19% in a dozen states — and nearly 25% in Mississippi. In only one state — North Dakota — was the rate less than 10%.

The picture further dims when we turn to the large metro areas — technically, the metropolitan statistical areas the federal Office of Management and Budget has carved out for agencies’ “statistical activities.”

Food hardship rates were higher than the national rate in all but 35 of the MSAs — and over 20% in 30 of them. These were mostly in the South and Mid-West, but we see pockets of widespread food hardship elsewhere, e.g., in several of California’s major agricultural centers.

Might it be that the law denying SNAP (food stamp) benefits to undocumented immigrants — and most of those here legally for less than five years — explains those egregiously high California rates?

Food Hardship in DC

The District’s food hardship rate was 15.9% — or nearly one in six households. This puts it just about smack-dab in the middle of the state ranking. Though the local unemployment rate has dipped, the District’s food hardship rate was a bit higher last year than in 2012 — and its ranking much higher, i.e., comparatively worse.

As I’ve remarked before, ranking the District among states if problematic because it’s a city — and would be even if granted statehood. But the MSA ranking is no better because the District is part of an area that includes some very well-off suburbs.

This is the perennial problem — and more consequential — with the affordability criteria for publicly-subsidized housing programs. We see it here in the fact that the MSA the District belongs to has a food hardship rate of 13.1% — the fourth lowest among the large metro areas.

Policy Takeaways

We can look at food hardship from two angles. One is not enough income. Too many people still jobless (and here in the District, half of them longer than unemployment insurance benefits cover).

Deplorably low cash benefits from other sources, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income. Too many jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family — or even a single person. Etc.

The other angle is a not strong enough anti-hunger safety net. I call it that because what we have, more in some places than others, is broader than the major federally-funded nutrition assistance programs we usually think of. Think, for example, about our donor-supported food pantries and meal services.

FRAC, however, understandably focuses on the largest of the federal anti-hunger programs — SNAP (the food stamp program). Republicans are clearly hostile to SNAP in its current form — if not to the program itself, than to funding it at the level needed to make hunger as rare as it ought to be in this country.

We know that SNAP benefits are too low to cover a full month’s worth of groceries — let alone a mix that would make for a healthful diet. We know, as I remarked above, that many immigrants can’t get them.

We know that the work requirements imposed on able-bodied adults without dependents cut them off from SNAP, even though they can’t find work or get into a qualifying job training program.

The Farm Bill that Congress finally passed last year could have addressed these problems. Instead, we were lucky that it didn’t make the last worse. And now, House Republicans may actually take a stab at converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have envisioned for five years now.

It’s sad when anti-hunger advocates and allies in the broader human needs community have to invest their limited resources in defense of a program that could do more to alleviate food hardship.

Sadder that some unknown number of people in nearly 20 million* households didn’t always have enough to eat last year.

* This is my calculation, based on the Census Bureau’s 2014 count of households.

 


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.


Food Hardship Rate Rises Nationwide, Drops in DC

March 6, 2012

The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center delivers some bad news for the nation as a whole and some moderately good news for the District of Columbia.

Food Hardship Nationwide

Nationwide, the food hardship rate increased somewhat in 2011, hitting 18.6% of households surveyed. This means that nearly one in five at some point during the year didn’t have enough money to buy the food the family needed.

The annual rate masks the extent of the upward trend. The food hardship rate during the first quarter of the year was 17.9%. By the fourth quarter, it had risen to 19.4%.

Ongoing high unemployment and underemployment rates account for part of the increase, FRAC says. But rising food prices and the freeze in food stamp benefit increases were also factors.

Costs of the items in the Thrifty Food Plan  market baskets rose 6.2% during 2011. That would ordinarily lead to an increase in food stamp benefits.

But when the Recovery Act boosted the benefits, it also suspended the annual food cost adjustments. Food stamps thus lost 6.2% of their purchasing power last year, though they were still worth more than they would have been without the boost.

Food Hardship in the District

Here in the District, the food hardship rate dropped from 18.9% in 2010 to 16.5% in 2011.

Last year, the District was right in the middle of FRAC’s state rankings. Now it’s slightly below the middle. Twenty-seven states had higher food hardship rates. In 17 of them, rates were at or above 20%.

As I’ve remarked before, the state ranking is, for the District, something of an apples to oranges comparison, since the District is only a city, notwithstanding its various state-like functions.

Fortunately, FRAC also provides food hardship rates for Congressional districts — these reflecting two-year averages to compensate for relatively small survey samples.

Here the District is again somewhat below the median, with a ranking of 295, based on a two-year average of 15.8%.

Nothing to stand up and cheer about. But a whole lot better than the 33.3% in the top-ranking district, which (in gerrymandered fashion) embraces the northern and eastern parts of Houston.

Policy Implications

So what’s the takeaway? Nothing new, but nonetheless important.

It’s crucial, FRAC says, to grow the economy in a way that provides full-time jobs at decent wages. At the same time, we need to strengthen income supports, e.g., unemployment insurance, low-income tax credits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Federal nutrition programs must be strengthened as well so that they reach more households in need and “with more robust benefits.”

For the long term, the latter would involve changing the basis for calculating food stamp benefits — a FRAC recommendation I’ve been harping on for some time.

More immediately, however, Congress has a Fiscal Year 2013 budget to pass.

The President has again recommended that it restore the months it shaved off the boost to help pay for the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act.

Also (again) that it temporarily suspend the time limit that now jeopardizes food stamp benefits for many poor able-bodied adults without dependents.

He proposes modest increases for some key child nutrition programs, including WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

He’s also proposing a bit more for TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program) — perhaps enough to sustain, at the current level, the stream¬† food products that flow to our country’s severely stressed pantries and soup kitchens.

But, as FRAC tactfully observes, “some in Congress” are proposing reductions in federal nutrition programs.

We’re told to expect a House budget plan much like last year’s. That would mean, among other things, a food stamp block grant structured to cut federal spending for the program by some $127 billion over the first ten years.

Some other programs — WIC and TEFAP, for example — would be slated for cuts. They’re doubly vulnerable, since they’re not protected from the across-the-board cuts that will kick in next January.

No doubt we’ve got to grapple with the projected long-term deficit. And the short-term prospects for tax revenues are fair to middlin’.

But “even in difficult times,” FRAC says, “we have the resources to eliminate hunger for everyone.” We could, in fact, gain at least $167.5 billion a year if we did.

Knowing this, the new food hardship figures should prompt second thoughts by our decision-makers — even those safety-net-slashing “some in Congress.”


What We Know (And Don’t) About Family Food Hardship In DC

October 6, 2011

Here’s the issue that’s been perplexing me ever since I read the Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship analysis.

As I earlier wrote, it tells us that an extraordinarily high percentage of District of Columbia households with children — 37.4% in fact — suffered from food hardship in 2009-10. In other words, the adult(s) sometimes didn’t have the resources to buy enough food for everyone in the family.

It would be easy to say, well, that’s because the District has an unusually high family poverty rate. Easy, but too simple. Because the federal government subsidizes a number of nutrition assistance programs.

The best known is the food stamp program — now officially SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the District bonuses for achieving top participation rates in both 2009 and 2010. So it seems unlikely that the family food hardship rate can be explained mainly by lack of food stamp benefits.

However, we’ve got good reasons to believe that food stamp benefits are too low to cover the full costs of food for a poor District family.

This still may not fully explain the family food hardship rate because other programs should have supplemented these benefits — at least, for households with children young enough for school attendance to be compulsory.

Are these programs not reaching the families that suffer from food hardship? Or do the families still run short, even though eligible members participate?

This is the question I said I couldn’t find the answer to. Here’s what I have found.

FRAC reports that the District’s summer meal program serves a very high percentage of low-income children — much higher than all those states with lower family food hardship rates. The base for this percentage is children who got free or reduced-price lunches during the school year — 80.2% last July.

FRAC also tracks school breakfast participation — again using school lunch participation as a benchmark. For the 2009-10 school year, it reports that somewhat over 48% of children who got free or reduced-price lunches also got F/RP breakfasts.*

This puts the District somewhat above the middle of both the state ranking and the large city school district ranking.

But how is the District doing with its school lunch program?

FRAC’s reports indicate growing participation by low-income children. In 2009-10, the total reached 37,306 — mostly children receiving free lunches, i.e., living in households at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

What we need to know is how many eligible children missed out. For that, it seems, we’d need to have access to unpublished data — or, for all I know, data that aren’t even collected.

The same is true for WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

FRAC’s nifty data tool tells us that, in 2009, the average monthly participation in the District totaled 17,463 — 6.5% more than 10 years ago. But we’ve got no benchmark to tell us what percentage of eligible mothers and young children the program served.

Ditto for Head Start, pre-K and daycare programs funded under the federal Child Care Development Block Grant — all of which generally provide kids with something to eat.

The Children’s Defense Fund reports District-level participant numbers for each. Total for 2010 was 5,806. But no percentages to tell us how many eligible children didn’t participate. And no way of knowing whether all who did got meals — or, if so, how many per day.

FRAC’s data tool provides average daily participant numbers for children in D.C. childcare programs, including Head Start, that serve meals or snacks subsidized by the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program.

In 2009, average daily participant numbers for them all totaled 5,948 — about 230 fewer than in 2007. But we’ve no way of knowing whether some low-income children got fed in programs that didn’t participate in CACFP.

And no way of knowing how many low-income children got no federally-subsidized meals or snacks at all. These would surely be children in the households most likely to suffer food hardship.

I’m not saying we need all these data to alleviate food hardship in the District — or for that matter, nationwide. But I do think we need to know more than we do to craft solutions that will give us the biggest bang for the buck.

More bucks too.

* As indicated below, FRAC has issued two school breakfast reports for the 2009-10 school year. The participation rate for the District is 48.4% in one and 48.2% in the other.