SNAP Reform a Key Action Against Hunger

September 8, 2016

September is Hunger Action Month — an annual campaign Feeding America launched in 2008 to get us all involved in advocacy, volunteering and other actions against hunger in our communities. That, as you know, was at the outset of the Great Recession.

It’s supposedly far behind us, but more people are hungry than shortly before it began. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported that significantly fewer people lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough of the right kinds of foods for “an active healthy lifestyle.”

Yet its survey found over 42.2 million of them — roughly 6 million more than in 2007. About 2.7  million more — 14.6 million in all — had “very low food security,” i.e., lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough of anything.

More than half the food insecure people lived in households that received SNAP (food stamp) benefits for the entire year. And well over 21% had very low food security.

I’ve used past food insecurity figures, as well as other evidence to hammer on the need to increase SNAP benefits. I’d like to recognize this Hunger Action month differently. So I’ll share a personal discovery as a lead into gleanings from a new policy brief.

Since Jesse died, I’ve tried to keep track of what I spend on food — just curious to know how much less than when our budget had to cover meals and snacks for both of us. Then I wondered how that compared to what I could buy if I depended on SNAP benefits.

I found I’m spending, on average, about twice the maximum I could receive. I find this quite remarkable.

I cook virtually everything that needs cooking — mostly from scratch. I don’t eat beef or pork any more. I don’t buy pricey fish or seafood, much as I’d like to. None of the priciest fruits and vegetables either. No sodas or sweet munchies now that I can keep such temptations out of the house without depriving anyone else.

Don’t mean to bore you with the details of my diet. But they’re relevant to my discovery in several ways addressed by the aforementioned brief and its proposals for “modernizing” SNAP.

The author, Professor James Ziliak, focuses on the food plan used to set SNAP benefit — aptly named the Thrifty Food Plan because it’s even cheaper than the lowest-cost plan USDA has developed for the rest of us.

The TFP assumes that SNAP households will fix their meals from scratch — mainly raw ingredients, though not entirely. Families aren’t expected to bake their own bread, for example. And some recipes USDA has published include canned beans, store-bought tomato sauce and the like.

Preparing TFP meals nevertheless requires an estimated 13 hours a week — or perhaps 16 — according to different studies Ziliak cites. Neither time estimate includes getting the groceries or cleaning up after cooking and eating.

Ziliak traces the prep time to the foods in the TFP “market basket.” They’ve changed over time, for two inter-related reasons. One is that federal law has required USDA to adjust the TFP in light of new Dietary Guidelines for Americans — the federal government’s recommendations for a well-balanced diet.

The other is that USDA uses a model that keeps the real-dollar cost of the plan the same as it was when the TFP replaced a very cheap, short-term plan in 1975. The result is a market basket increasingly weighted toward very low-cost foods — bought in bulk or the equivalent.

Hence the unspoken from-scratch assumption. That’s unrealistic for many households, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council concluded — and not only because of the time involved.

I’ve already summarized on other reasons. So I’ll confine myself here to one that’s a core concern of the modernizing proposal — the “geographic variability of food prices.”

Basically, those low-cost foods in the market basket aren’t always as cheap as the TFP assumes because USDA prices them based on the CPI-U — the consumer price index most federal programs use for inflation adjustments.

The index is for urban consumers nationwide. But, as we all know, food costs a whole lot more in some metro areas than others. Using a fairly new database, Ziliak maps the differences between actual TFP market basket costs and the national average in 2010.

In parts of the country, including the District of Columbia, they were as much as 21% higher than average. In-depth studies in a couple of cities have found even great gaps between SNAP benefits and market basket costs.

Ziliak’s proposal would have SNAP benefits immediately increased by 20%. The boost derives from what he calls the “time deficit,” i.e., the difference between the food prep time the TFP requires and what someone (or ones) in SNAP households probably spend.

It would thus eliminate or at least reduce a related deficit — the extra money many of them spend to put food on the table because they don’t have that much prep time.

USDA would then make two changes in the model it uses to calculate the market basket cost it uses for benefits. It would introduce geographic price adjustments, using any one of several already available sources.

It would also change the so-called reference household it uses. That’s now a two-adult household, with two children, the elder somewhere between six and nine years old. Ziliak wants the elder to become a teenage boy. His food needs would presumably drive another across-the-board increase.

Lastly, USDA would conduct research aimed at improving the household food purchasing data it uses to create the market baskets — and, as you might expect, actual food procurement, prep and cleanup time.

The reforms would, of course, reduce food insecurity. They would also, Ziliak argues, reduce poverty, especially for very low-income households. (We’d see the impact if countable income included the value of SNAP benefits, as it already does in the Census Bureau’s better poverty measure analyses.)

The benefits boosts would lead SNAP households to eat more healthfully too, Ziliak says. He borrows here from a recent study for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It assumes a $30 per month increase in SNAP benefits — roughly the same 20% Ziliak recommends.

We’ve had ample evidence of problems with the TFP for a long time — and other proposed fixes. I’ve focused on Ziliak’s because it pulls in a lot of the recent research and makes a persuasive case for reforms that USDA could readily undertake — if Congress headed the call to action on hunger.

Big if, I know.

 

 


Hunger Costs America Well Over $160 Billion a Year

November 30, 2015

Hunger costs our country $160 billion a year, Bread for the World reports. That’s more than one and a half times what the federal government spent on all domestic food assistance programs last fiscal year.

And the estimate is very conservative because it reflects only what the analysts could glean from academic studies of the impacts of hunger and food insecurity on health and related costs.

These include health care, of course, but also lost work time due to personal illness or the need to care for a sick family member.

The report, though not the headline figure also includes other indirect costs, i.e., for special education in public schools and dropouts after students had to be absent too much and/or repeat a grade.

Folding these in increases the hunger cost to nearly $179 billion. And as the online intro to the report says, that’s still only partial because we don’t have the research to quantify all relevant costs.

It cites the costs of forgoing prescribed medications — or skipping doses — so as to have more money for food. Also missing from the estimates, it says, are various other health-related “byproducts” of hunger.

These include overweight and obesity, some forms of cancer, deficiencies in micronutrients like iron, calcium and the familiar vitamins, potentially preventable returns to hospitals and mental health problems, though some of these are factored in.

The new study borrows from and updates a similar study conducted in 2010. One would expect high hunger-related costs then, what with so many people out of work and perilously short on money — a problem even for those with temporarily-boosted SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

As you know, the official unemployment rate has dropped. So has the estimate of what it would be if all working-age jobless adults were counted.

But hunger-related health costs have continued to rise. This is especially notable because the prior “hunger bill” included the costs of charitable feeding programs, while the Bread for the World study didn’t.

I’m never comfortable with putting a price tag on the harms deprivation causes. But costs do make for good headlines and may grab the attention of policymakers, especially when they imply potential savings.

It’s still disturbing to see costs attributed to severe, possibly chronic health problems — and to suicide, the third largest item in the latest cost estimate.

How can we put a dollar figure on the suffering of people who did away with themselves or on the grief, guilt and other often devastating emotions of survivors? Or the pangs of accommodating holes in the fabric of their everyday lives?

The leaders of Bread for the World undoubtedly have similar reservations. The organization identifies itself as a “collective Christian voice,” advocating for a world without hunger.

Helping us recognize the shockingly high health costs of hunger and malnutrition may stir us to advocacy and give us ammunition. It may perhaps even change some of our policymakers’ perspectives.

But ensuring that everyone in this country has enough healthful food to eat every day is fundamentally a moral call. We all feel this, I think, whether we affiliate with a religious faith or not.

Yet we’ve got about 48 million people here who at the very least may go hungry — and roughly 17.2 million who at least sometimes do.

Apologies for climbing onto a soapbox. Thinking about hunger, especially when many of us are still recovering from the food excesses of Thanksgiving — and perhaps the shopping aftermath — gets me going.

So to end on a somewhat different note, this is also the time of year when we with the wherewithal often give to the charities of our choice. Our gifts can’t eliminate hunger. We need sufficiently funded government programs for that.

But organizations that feed poor and near-poor people and advocate on their behalf deserve our support. Off the soapbox and onto other issues.


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.

 

 


New Proof That SNAP Benefits Are Too Low

September 25, 2014

As Hunger Action Month draws to a close, I’m recurring to what some of you followers may understandably view as an obsession — the need to increase SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Two recent reports by U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers provide further proof.

Food Insecurity, Despite SNAP

As you may have read, USDA reported that 14.3% of American households — about 17.5 million — were food insecurity during at least part of 2013. At least 8 million had incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP.* And 53% of them received SNAP benefits during the entire year.

In other words, by definition, they didn’t always have “access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” benefits notwithstanding. They didn’t all suffer from hunger, however, because a household may be food insecure if it recurrently can’t afford balanced meals for everyone.

But 23.9% of them had what USDA calls “very low food security.” This means that at least one member, at least some of the time had to skimp on or altogether skip meals because the household didn’t have the resources to buy enough food, healthful or otherwise.

Both the overall food insecurity and the “very low food security” rates for SNAP households are somewhat higher than the 2012 rates. And those were somewhat higher than the 2011 rates.

Food Costs and SNAP Benefits

The households surveyed for the food (in)security report spent, on average, $50 per person per week for food — somewhat over $6.00 more per person than what the maximum SNAP benefit for a three-member household would have covered.

USDA provides a better — if somewhat oblique — measure of the adequacy of SNAP benefits by using the costs of its Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining those benefits.

Adjusting for household size and the age/gender configurations used for the market baskets the TFP comprises, researchers found that the typical food secure household spent 21% more for food than the TFP cost.

Another study by USDA researchers focused on whether adults who received SNAP benefits drank more high-calories beverages than other low-income adults. The full answer (behind a paywall, alas) is that they didn’t.

I mentioned the study here because, as the Food Research and Action Center helpfully reports, the average SNAP recipient surveyed lived in a household whose monthly benefits typically fell $209 short of what it spent on food.

All told, 81% of the recipients surveyed spent more on food than their SNAP benefits covered — obviously, a whole lot more in many cases. The average household’s benefits covered somewhat less than 58% of its monthly food bills.

As you may recall, Congress cut all SNAP benefits by using for other purposes funds the Recovery Act had allocated for a boost. The boost was originally supposed to last until the customary food-cost adjustments to SNAP benefits caught up with it.

The cuts went into effect last November. So they probably aren’t reflected in the food insecurity figures I cited above — or, I would guess, in the shortfalls the beverage survey found.

A Long-Standing Problem

We’ve had evidence that SNAP benefits are insufficient — and why — for a goodly number of years.

FRAC has repeatedly cited defects in the TFP — unrealistically low costs among them. It’s been raising this issue since the early 1990s, when it cited state and local studies showing that the actual costs of the TFP were higher for low-income families than the cost USDA set.

A two-city study conducted in 2007 found that a family of four receiving the maximum SNAP benefit would have had to come up with $2,500 more a year in the lower-cost city — and $3,165 in the higher-cost city — to cover the costs of foods in the TFP.

And, as a wrote awhile ago, a committee of National Research Council and Institute of Medicine experts conclude that one of the key assumptions built into the TFP is “out of synch” with the way most families put food on the table today — and inferentially, with the way many SNAP recipients can.

None of this seems to make a whit of difference to our federal policymakers. Witness the Farm Bill Congress recently passed — and what it might have passed if Republicans had controlled the Senate. But maybe some day ….

* The 8 million are households with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income maximum for SNAP. The USDA report uses this percent of the FPL as the cut-off for reporting SNAP participation. But 27 states and the District of Columbia have exercised an option to raise their gross income cut-offs. So there may actually have been more food insecure SNAP households.