Message to Congress: “We Can’t ‘Food-Bank’ Our Way Out of Hunger

November 25, 2013

Katy Waldman at Slate interviews Debra, a single mother who lives in the District of Columbia. Her 21-year-old daughter is till living with her and unemployed. The conversation centers on the recent cuts in SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

They used to have meat on the weekends — a festive (and healthful) break from the weekday lunchmeats. But “meat is going to be a huge problem now.”

“The good thing” is that a church will give her a turkey for Thanksgiving. She doesn’t know what else she’ll have on the table. Like as not, one infers, it will come from one of the two local food pantries she visits monthly — Bread for the City and Martha’s Table.

I’d been thinking about the churches and other charitable organizations that make Thanksgiving meals possible for low-income families. And about charitable individuals also, since our local grocery store again has collection carts for customers to put non-perishables in.

Free Thanksgiving meals and fixings are an old tradition. But, of course, the risk of hunger — and hunger itself — aren’t just holiday events.

Millions of people, like Debra, now rely on food pantries for something to put on the table, even though they’re enrolled in SNAP.

Food pantries have reported longer lines, increased needs to ration, even needs to turn people away ever since the recession began. It’s a tad early to know how the recent SNAP cuts have further strained their capacity to meet need. But reports have begun trickling in.

For example, a spokesperson for the Capital Area Food Bank, which helps supply well over 500 pantries and other nonprofits, says, “We see more people call into the food bank for assistance, we see more people come into our partner agencies, and they’re requesting more and more food every day.”

And no wonder when, in the District alone, more than 144,000 residents lost a portion of their SNAP benefits, which were only, on average, $1.50 per meal before.

The cuts in the District amount to a total first-year loss of $15 million. This is far more than our local feeding programs can make up for.

Martha’s Table, for example, has an annual food budget of $1 million, its president Patty Stonesifer says in an op-ed jointly written with D.C. Hunger Solutions Director Alexandra Ashbrook.

The SNAP cuts nationwide will total about $11 billion by 2016. That translates into an estimated 10 million lost meals a day for close to three years — at least 250 million by the time you read this.

There’s obviously no way that churches and other charitable organizations could ramp up to supply so many more meals or the equivalent in groceries.

At this point, all the food they provide to hungry people is only about 6% of what federal nutrition programs provide, says Bread for the World President David Beckmann, a leading anti-hunger voice in the faith-based community.

Well, you know where this is going.

Most members of Congress are home now. And most are probably looking forward to a Thanksgiving feast.

When they return, they’ll have just eight scheduled working days to pass a new Farm Bill before they go back home for an extended holiday season.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas says the negotiators are getting closer to a compromise. “The struggle,” he adds, “is how do you deliver the safety net.” By which he means, how will we provide farm businesses with taxpayer-subsidized protections against losing money.

Most of us, I suppose, thought the real safety net issue was how much more the Farm Bill would cut SNAP.

Negotiators have a real struggle to the bridge the gap between the Senate’s $4 billion cut and House cuts that total $39 billion, plus some unestimated savings achieved by an incentive for states to adopt new work requirements that would shrink their SNAP rolls.

Some Democrats are reportedly leaning toward a $10 billion cut, not counting the potential effects of some policy changes that would be thrown in as sweeteners for House Republicans.

Time was when addressing hunger in America was a bipartisan endeavor, as former Senators Bob Dole and Tom Daschle remind us.

Now the bipartisan deal, should there be one, would, at the very least, make hunger more frequent for people like Debra, who already sometimes skips meals so her daughter can eat.

She’s nevertheless fortunate to live in a community where a large network of faith-based and other nonprofit organizations strive to ensure that low-income — and no-income — people don’t suffer from malnutrition.

That they can do as much as they do is a credit to compassion (in the literal sense) that moves so many well-fed people to donate their services, money and/or in-kind gifts.

But, as Beckmann says, “We can’t ‘food-bank’ our way out of hunger.” Food banks and the programs they help supply have confirmed this in no uncertain terms.

You’d think, by now, Congress would have gotten the message — and had second thoughts about squeezing more money out of SNAP.


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.


Acute Food Needs Now Monthly Events For More Than Three Million U.S. Households

October 25, 2011

Food pantry visits are becoming “the new normal,” reports Feeding America, the country’s largest charitable food distribution organization.

The “new normal” here refers to a shift in the role food pantries play in helping low-income people feed themselves and their families.

People used to seek help from food pantries when they had what Feeding America refers to as “temporary acute food needs.”

Now, it says, a majority of clients use pantries “as part of their long-term strategies to supplement monthly food shortfalls.” In other words, “acute food needs” aren’t occasional emergencies. They’re regular, foreseeable events.

Feeding America has come to this conclusion by analyzing client responses to a survey it conducted in 2009.

According to the new analysis:

  • More than half (54%) of the clients surveyed had used a pantry for at least six months during the past year.
  • More than a third of them (36%) had used a pantry at least once a month during the past year.
  • These frequent users reported using a pantry for, on average, more than 28 consecutive months.

We learn two different, perhaps related facts about these recurrent and/or frequent pantry clients.

First, 58% of them received SNAP (food stamp) benefits — another clear indication that the benefits often don’t cover the costs of a month’s worth of food.

Second, a disproportionate number of recurrent users were seniors. One out of three of all recurrent users was 60 or older. And 56% of them were long-term recurrent users.

This too sheds some light on the food stamp program.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest report on SNAP participation trends, only 34% of eligible seniors, i.e., those at least 60 years old, were enrolled in Fiscal Year 2009. This is 38% lower than for the eligible population as a whole.

The low participation rate for seniors continues a long-term trend. Studies have produced a variety of explanations, summarized by the Food Research and Action Center in a broader review of research on access and access barriers to getting food stamps.

Some of the barriers deter participation by other groups as well, e.g., the stigma attached to “welfare,” complex applications processes, difficulties in getting to a food stamp office, long waiting times once there, the need to go back and wait recurrently to again prove eligibility.

But one barrier stands out for seniors in particular. They decide the hassles just aren’t worth the small amount they can get.

USDA’s recently-released report on the characteristics of SNAP households shows that, for most, the benefits are truly small.

Of the fewer than 2.9 million seniors who got food stamps in 2010, 80% lived alone. Their average monthly benefit was $119 — or about $1.30 per meal.

This might explain why some low-income seniors decide to rely on their own scarce resources, supplemented by free food from a friendly pantry rather than cope with the hassles involved in getting food stamps.

Also why seniors who do get food stamps would have to develop an anti-hunger strategy that includes regular visits to a pantry.

Young and old food pantry clients alike face greater risks of hunger in the months to come.

As Feeding America notes, food prices are rising. Food companies are adopting new efficiencies and thus have less surplus to donate.

Bad economic times have reduced charitable donations from other sources. Also triggered cutbacks in funding by some state and local governments.

And to top it all, Congress has cut funding for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program by 40%, leaving $80 million less for local homeless services programs, including food pantries.

The House of Representatives has approved a $63 million cut for TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides about 25% of the foods that Feeding America’s food bank partners distribute to emergency providers like pantries.

Maybe hope for TEFAP in the Senate, though ultimately the House would have to back down.

Still and all, “the beginning of the ‘perfect storm,'” as Feeding America says.