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.

 


Summer Brings Hunger, Despite Free Meal Programs for Children

June 5, 2014

“I usually do, in the summertime, go without eating, says Jean C., one of the Witnesses to Hunger. She tells her kids she’ll eat later, but the oldest has caught on.

Summer is always an especially difficult time for low-income parents with school-age children.

During most of the school year, their kids get free or reduced-price lunches. A growing number also get no-cost or low-cost breakfasts. They may get an after-school snack — or even supper — if they stay to participate in an “educational or enrichment” activity, e.g. tutoring, a photography class.

But summer rolls round. Now parents have to stretch their budgets to serve three squares a day, every day — and like as not, something in between.

Not surprisingly, Census surveys have found higher rates of food insecurity among families with school-age children during summer months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers two summer meal programs designed to address this problem — one only for schools that provide subsidized lunches during the school year and one for nonprofits and government agencies generally.

With some exceptions, subsidies are available only to programs in areas where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals — or (extra paperwork here) to those that can show that half the children they serve do.

But meals are free to all participating children. And USDA’s more inclusive program — the Summer Food Service Program — reimburses at somewhat higher rates than for free school breakfasts and lunches during the school year.

The summer meal programs are doing better than in recent years, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s just-released status report. But better isn’t all that great.

Nationwide, the programs served more than 2.9 million children during July 2013 — 15.1% of children who’d received free or reduced-price lunches during the prior school year.

This is surely better than July 2012, when they served 14.3%. The higher rate, however, reflects not only an increase in the number of children served, but a smaller decrease in the number who’d received free or reduced-price lunches.

And it’s still lower than rates before 2010, when a downward trend had already set in. By way of comparison, the rate was 20.8% in 2002.

FRAC cites recession-related budget cuts to programs that commonly serve subsidized summer meals — both summer school and a variety of others, e.g., arts and crafts classes at public recreation centers, daytime soccer camps.

Even so, only about one in five children who might have gone hungry — or more likely, caused their parents to — benefited from a summer meal program more than five years before the Great Recession set in.

This suggests other limits. So do FRAC’s more recent participation rate breakouts, which consistently show wide variations among states — in the latest case, ranging from 30.4% in New Mexico to 4.5% in Oklahoma.

First off, the SFSP hinges on sponsors to launch and operate programs — and so on interest, organizational capacities and resources the subsidies don’t provide. And so-called area eligibility, i.e., the 50% rule I mentioned above, tends to limit where they can locate their programs.

Summer meals are said to help draw children into worthwhile activities. But I’ve been told the opposite is also true.

In other words, sponsors generally need to offer activities with some appeal because the prospects of something free to eat aren’t a sufficient magnet. Or perhaps they might be, but carry a stigma the activities counteract.

Sponsors and other community organizations need to let families know what the programs offer and where — seemingly obvious, but only 40% of low-income families recently surveyed knew where free summer meal sites were located.

Transportation to program sites is a problem, especially in rural areas. Elsewhere also, since 40% of the food-insecure parents surveyed — not nearly all of them rural — cited lack of transportation as a reason their children didn’t participate in a summer meal program.

There’s a whole other kind of limit. FRAC tells us that July is generally the peak month for summer meal programs. In other words, many don’t operate from the time schools close to the time they open again.

So presumably parents of many of those more than 2.9 million children had to come up with the three squares a day during some good part of the summer vacation.

All of which is to say that USDA’s summer meal programs, fine as they are, may not be the solution to hunger for parents like Jean — and in worse cases, their children.

They could get help from a bill recently introduced in Congress — of which more in my next post.


Summer Meal Program Participation Rate Ticks Down Nationwide, Plunges in DC

June 17, 2013

The Food Research and Action Center’s tenth annual report on federally-subsidized summer meal programs delivers mixed news for the nation as a whole.

News for the District of Columbia is just plain bad — worse, in fact, than last year’s. And I’m still puzzled, though I’ve got a few glimmers now.

Nationwide Summer Meal Participation

On any given weekday in July 2012, about 12,790 more low-income children received a free meal from a school, other government agency or nonprofit subsidized by one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s funding sources.

This does not, however, mean that summer meal programs served a higher percent of children in need because the number of children poor enough to receive free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year increased by somewhat more than 444,500.

By this benchmark, the percent of low-income children served by summer meal program dropped by 0.3%.

Very slight, but it means that only 14.3% of these children received a free, well-balanced meal during the summer recess. That left some 16.8 million children at risk of hunger.

They lived in families with incomes no higher than 185% of the federal poverty line — apparently much lower in more cases than not.

Last year, 59% of children in the school lunch program qualified for free meals. Most thus had family incomes no higher than 130% of the FPL — about $24,800 for a family of three.

In 2010-11, 14.7% of these children were food insecure or sometimes actually didn’t have enough to eat, even though their families also received food stamp benefits, according to a recently-published USDA analysis.

So need is outstripping capacity to serve. But over the long haul, capacity is shrinking too.

Even with last year’s increase, summer meal programs still served 3% (about 99,100) fewer low-income children than they did in July 2008 — and 7.8% fewer than the peak in July 1998.

DC Summer Meal Participation

The District’s summer meal participation rate plummeted — from 73.5% in July 2011 to 59.8% last July.

True, this is still higher than any state’s rate, but we don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison here. The District is, after all, a city. It’s got none of the challenges states face because they’ve got children dispersed in far-flung suburbs and rural areas.

The year-to-year comparisons for the District itself probably are fairly reliable. So the sudden, large rate drop is alarming — especially because it’s not one of those things we can lay off on recession-related poverty increases.

Specifically, the summer meal participation rate didn’t plunge because vastly more children received free and reduced-price lunches during the school year. Only 944 more did.

It’s almost entirely due to a large decrease in the number of low-income children the District’s summer meal programs served — 4,249 fewer than in July 2011.

With the exception of a blip the summer before, both the number of children served and the participation rate have been trending down since July 2007, when the District’s programs served nearly 96% of low-income children.

Yet both District government agencies and local nonprofits have worked hard to make summer meals readily available — and known to low-income families in the community.

Last July, meals subsidized by USDA’s Summer Food Service Program were offered at 338 sites across the city — 16 more than the year before.

What I understand now, however, is that the sheer number of sites is too crude a measure. We need also to consider how big the programs were and whether they were programs kids were likely to participate in for reasons other than getting something to eat.

From this perspective, the large reduction in the District’s public summer school enrollment may help explain last summer’s lower participation rate. Also perhaps reduced funding for nonprofit day camps and other summer activities.

A bright spot in all of this is that DC Hunger Solutions — a mover-and-shaker in the District’s nutrition programs, including summer meals — plans to do a deep dive into the participation data.

Let’s hope what it finds helps get the rate turned around.


Expert Report Indicates Need for Larger Food Stamp Benefits

March 11, 2013

SNAP (the food stamp program) is protected from the across-the-board cuts that will soon kick in. But benefits will be cut anyway, come November, because Congress has twice raided the funds it provided for a temporary boost.

A family of three will lose at least $20 a month, according to new estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Still-eligible families would lose considerably more under the Farm Bills the House Agriculture Committee and the full Senate passed last year.

Yet we now have new, credible evidence that food stamp benefits are already too low for a great many participating families. This, at any rate, is a reasonable inference from an analysis jointly produced by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

The core of the problem is the assumptions built into the Thrifty Food Plan — the collection of market baskets that provide the basis for setting food stamp benefits.

Basically, the TFP assumes that families will make many of their meals from scratch, using low-cost, processed ingredients — a stew of potatoes, carrots and cut up chuck roast, for example, or chili made from slow-cooked dried beans.

In other words, someone in the family will have plenty of time to go grocery shopping, with pauses and backtracks for price comparisons, and the time to peel, chop, braise, bake, etc.

The family will live relatively near a full-service grocery store. And it will have the transportation to get there — and home with bags full of groceries.

It will also live in an area where food costs are relatively low, since we know from previous studies that the bill for a TFP-based food selection in a high-cost city far exceeds the maximum food stamp benefit.

And — something the IOM panel doesn’t mention — the family will have a good-sized refrigerator with ample freezer space. We see this assumption in the recipes and tips the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published for “healthy, thrifty meals.”

The IOM panel concludes that the from-scratch assumption is “out of synch with the practices of most households today.” Surely true for the 62% of food stamp households with children who’ve got at least one working member.

The IOM panel doesn’t come to such firm conclusions about the other assumptions. It merely identifies factors USDA should examine in determining whether food stamp allotments are adequate.

This is what USDA asked for. What it will do with the answer remains to be seen.

What our federal policymakers should do seems to me obvious enough. Beating a dead horse here, I know, but they should first and foremost give up the notion of reducing the deficit by cutting food stamp benefits.

Though the recession and lingering labor market ills have driven SNAP spending upward, it’s expected to drop to nearly the same share of GDP — a common measure of federal spending –as it represented in 2007.

The total cost of our primary nutrition safety net would then be somewhere around one-third of one percent of the value of everything our economy produces.

Beyond this, our policymakers ought finally to come to grips with the fact that the TFP doesn’t provide a suitable basis for determining food stamp benefits.

We’ve got scads of evidence that a large number of recipients can’t stretch them till the end of the month — let alone purchase the foods they’d need for a healthful diet.

A fairly recent study for USDA found that food stamp households had used, on average, 90% of their monthly benefits by the end of the third week — this despite the boost that’s due to expire.

The latest reported results of an annual survey conducted for the agency show that nearly half of households that received food stamp benefits throughout 2011 experienced food insecurity, i.e., were at risk of hunger or even sometimes didn’t have enough food for everyone because they couldn’t afford it.

No wonder that, as Feeding America has reported, 58% of the people who regularly or recurrently visited the food pantries in its network were food stamp recipients.

The Food Research and Action Center has repeatedly recommended that food stamp benefits be based on USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan instead of the TFP — for reasons fully explained in a report it issued last December.

FRAC offers some additional recommendations in a statement triggered by the IOM report, e.g., a change in the outdated assumption that eligible households can spend 30% of their own income to supplement their benefits.

Congress will presumably again address the need for a new Farm Bill this year. So it’s got an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and create a food stamp program that will, at long last, end hunger and malnutrition in this country.

At the very least, it should do no further harm. Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but in this political environment, it is.