How Public Policies Helped Drive Down the Family Food Insecurity Rate

September 26, 2016

My recent post on SNAP (food stamp) benefits used the latest food (in)security figures to show that those benefits don’t always provide sufficient supplemental nutrition assistance. This is surely true. But it’s a relatively small slice of the story the new report tells.

So here’s the upside and how we might at least partly account for it.

Less Food Insecurity and Less Out-in-Out Hunger

First off, as I noted, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a significantly lower food insecurity rate for 2015 — 12.7% of households, as compared to 14% in 2014. The drop translates into well over 1.5 million households or roughly 5.8 million fewer food insecure people.

The “very low food security” rate also declined, from 5.6% to a flat 5%. So roughly 2.9 million fewer people lived in households where at least one member at least sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

New Low for Food Insecure Children

As in the past, families with children had a higher food insecurity rate than households without — 16.6%, as compared to 10.9%.

But children themselves were food insecure in only 7.8% of families — roughly 3 million. And only 0.7% — about 274,000 — had such severe food insecurity that a child sometimes had to skip a meal or even go without food for a day.

“Only” may seem to trivialize the child hunger problem. But the share of households with food insecure children was the lowest since USDA began tracking the way it does now, in 1998.

How the Economy Helped

The recovering labor market surely helps account for the lower food insecurity and hunger rates. The former peaked at 14.9% in 2011 and the latter ticked back up to 5.7%.

The unemployment rate than averaged 8.9%. It was probably around 5% when households were asked about their food security last year. So more had a breadwinner actually earning bread. And fewer breadwinners were working part-time, though they wanted full-time jobs.

Average hourly wages in the private sector grew, though not as much as labor advocates — and presumably the workers they advocate for — would have liked.

At the same time, auto fuel prices plummeted. And prices for food and most other commonly-purchased goods and services barely increased — or not at all.

These three factors together suggest that some households had enough more to spend on food — and could make the extra go far enough — to shift them into the food secure majority.

How Policies Probably Helped, Though Not Food Related

I earlier cited two public policies that almost surely help explain the marked growth in median household incomes last year. Both minimum wage increases and the Federal Reserve’s decision to let the labor market get tighter presumably meant more money in more families’ budgets for food.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests other policy-related factors. These include the Affordable Care Act, especially, it says, in states that expanded their Medicaid programs.

We shouldn’t altogether discount other ACA features that could have given households more money to spend on food — the substantial subsidies for low-income people who purchased their health insurance on an exchange, for example, and the extended funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

How Nutrition Assistance Policies Helped

SNAP caseloads have steadily shrunk as workers who’d lost their jobs during the Great Recession found others — or got more hours back into their schedules. They’ve unfortunately also shrunk because some very poor people couldn’t find jobs or slots in a training program that would keep them eligible for SNAP.

The Center, however, suggests that SNAP may have reached more eligible individuals and families last year. We know it reached a near-record high in 2014, the latest year USDA has published rates for.

The policy angle here is partly the agency’s effort to encourage outreach by awarding bonuses to states that achieved the highest — and most improved — participation rates.

But it’s also both state and local efforts to bring eligible households into SNAP just because they’d then have more funds to combat hunger. (House Republicans, as you probably know, would do away with this “incentive” by converting the program to a block grant.)

We should also look to other nutrition assistance programs, including the free and reduced-price schools meals the federal government subsidizes.

They’re obviously a factor in food security rates, since parents have more to spend on the meals and snacks they alone can provide if their children get fed for free — or for very little — when school’s in session.

The Center cites one relevant policy change that can help account for last year’s lower family food insecurity and hunger rates — community eligibility.

It’s an option high-poverty schools have to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all their students. More low-income children will get them because it eliminates applications barriers and the stigma children often feel when they know their peers will know they’re poor or nearly so.

The option became available to schools nationwide for the first time in 2014-15. More than 14,200 adopted it then. An additional 4,000 or so joined them the following school year, the first half of which falls within the USDA survey time frame.

So parents of more than 8.5 million children could have saved the costs of ten meals a week for each for roughly half the year. These were not all low-income parents, but at least 40% probably were.

Schools that adopt community eligibility must serve free breakfasts, as well as lunches. But some schools have long served them — never as many as lunches, but the gap is closing. In 2014-15, more than 91% of schools that served lunches also served breakfasts.

Well over 11.6 million low-income children got them on an average day — about 474,600 more than during the prior school year. The Food Research and Action Center, the source of these figures, attributes the increase in part to community eligibility.

A separate, though possibly related reason is that more schools have begun serving breakfasts in the classroom or some other way that doesn’t require children to eat in the cafeteria before the school day begins.

They’ve thus eliminated both the logistical barrier posed by having to get kids to school extra early and the stigma kids may feel because it’s obvious their parents haven’t fed them.

Four states and the District of Columbia had passed laws requiring at least their high-poverty schools to serve “breakfast after the bell” by 2015.

So here’s another way that public policies have played a role in reducing food insecurity and out-in-out hunger for both children and their parents. Still a lot more to do, but we know a lot about what that should be.

More than I’ve covered here, but we know quite a lot about the rest too.

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Progress Perhaps, But a Long Way to Go Before Every Kid Healthy

April 18, 2016

This is Every Kid Healthy Week, invented to celebrate what schools are doing to turn out healthy kids. Would that every kid were healthy — or even that schools could make them all so.

Not saying schools can’t do a lot, mind you. They can, for example, schedule daily physical activities and offer after-school and summer sports programs.

They can include nutrition in their curricula and get kids interested in healthful foods, e.g., by having gardens where they can plant and tend vegetables. And they can, of course, serve nutritious meals, even if Congress lets them off the hook somewhat.

They can also, in many cases, help ensure that kids who need those meals most actually get them by taking advantage of a new option called community eligibility. And a growing number of schools are.

That’s the good news. The bad news, also delivered shortly before this celebratory week, is that many children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood are more likely to suffer toxic effects because they don’t get enough of the right kinds of things to eat. And no real news, alas, from Congress.

Free School Meals for More Poor Kids

Schools ordinarily require parents to apply for free or reduced-price meals for their children — and to reapply every year. This, needless to say, is a barrier, especially for parents who don’t read well and/or fear scrutiny by bureaucrats.

Schools must bypass this process for children whose families receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits. They may also directly certify children who receive certain other federal benefits, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

They can do this, however, only if their computer system links to systems in other agencies and can perform data matches. For this and perhaps other reasons, they missed well over one in five eligible children in 2013-14, the latest year we have figures for.

The newest version of the Child Nutrition Act gives some schools another option that eliminates not only the application and technology barriers, but another — the stigma low-income children feel if they go to the cafeteria.

Schools with at least 40% of children who automatically qualify for free school meals may opt for community eligibility. In other words, they can expand eligibility for free school meals to the entire student community.

Last year was only the second that all high-poverty schools could seize this opportunity. More did, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research and Action Center report.

Just over half of all schools that could had adopted community eligibility by the end of the school year. A lot of variation, as one might guess.

The District of Columbia reached 87%, second only to North Dakota. Less than a quarter of high-poverty schools in 10 states were adopters. But almost all states had more schools participating than during the first year when what had been a pilot program became an option nationwide.

Higher Lead Poisoning Risks Due to Poor Nutrition

We’re all familiar now with exposure to lead poisoning — from water, as in Flint, Michigan, which put the problem on the public radar screen, and from other sources, e.g., paint, contaminated soil.

And we’re familiar with the lifelong damages that lead in the body can cause, especially in young children, and with the fact that alarming numbers of those tested have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.

These children are only the tip of the iceberg because states don’t test all children for lead poisoning — even apparently all children at high risk. But what we do know indicates that it’s far more common among children in high-poverty communities — presumably then among poor and near-poor children.

Certain vitamins and minerals can reduce lead absorption and/or the toxic effects of lead absorbed. So a well-balanced diet does even more for children’s health than what’s commonly said.

Looked at the other way, children at high risk of lead exposure are also at higher risk for harmful health effects because the foods they’re served at home are less likely to deliver enough of the protective nutrients.

The Urban Institute tries to show an actual link by focusing on a subset of high-poverty counties — those that tested at least 1,000 children and found at least 5% with blood lead levels over the Center for Disease Control’s high-risk threshold.

The five with the highest test results also had child food insecurity rates above the very high national average, it reports. Most of the rest of the counties it sampled had higher than average rates too.

So, wrapping back around, high-poverty schools have an extra incentive, were one needed, to opt for community eligibility.

What Only Congress Can Do, But Isn’t

Community eligibility can do only so much. Many low-income children are too young for even kindergarten, of course. They’ll need well-balanced meals and snacks in daycare programs.

School-age children will need the same during summer months, when their families now often have to stretch their too-low SNAP benefits to feed them as many as 10 extra meals a week.

The Urban Institute draws the connection. Only Congress can expand and strengthen the programs that are supposed to prevent hunger and malnutrition among low-income children.

It’s again let the umbrella for these programs — the Child Nutrition Act — expire, though it’s given the current law a brief extension.

The Senate has had a pretty good bill to reauthorize the CNA pending since late January. But the Majority Leader seems more preoccupied with the Supreme Court vacancy — and with proving that he and his Republican colleagues can get something done.

Don’t even look to the House, which is apparently looking to the Senate to pass its version of the CNA. It will, of course, have to vote on a bill sooner or later.

Seems that action there could, among other things, roll back progress on community eligibility, since the draft committee bill would raise the opt-in threshold to 60% of poor and near-poor students.

Action to help Flint get the lead out of its water — and to prevent more such crises — seems stalled too, by one lone Senator, who asserts that Michigan has plenty of money.

No concern about lead poisoning elsewhere, but rather that his colleagues would just “funnel taxpayer money to their own home states,” as if they don’t have corroding lead water pipes too.

More concern on the part of the Majority Leader to protect a dubious Senate custom than endangered children, it seems  — or perhaps more to prevent another intra-party rift.

Too soon to say how any of this will ultimately pan out. But it’s clear that Every Kid Healthy Week is a bittersweet occasion.