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.*
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.