When No News Isn’t Good News: Hunger Edition

September 24, 2015

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the food insecurity rate last year was so little different from the 2013 rate as to be statistically the same — 14%.

That’s about 17.4 million households or a total of 48.1 million people without “consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

There was also no measurable change in what USDA calls the “very low food security rate,” i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes didn’t have enough to eat due to lack of resources, including SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

More than 6.9 million households — 5.6% of all in the U.S. — fell into this category. And in 422,000 of them, children were sometimes hungry, had to skip meals or even went a whole day without anything to eat. No statistically significant change in this rate either.

These figures almost surely understate the actual extent of malnutrition and hunger in this country because the survey they’re based on doesn’t include homeless individuals or families. They’re nonetheless troubling. And the news doesn’t get more cheering as we drill down.

Food Insecurity Over the Longer Term

The nationwide food insecurity rate peaked in 2011, when it was 14.9%. The latest rate is lower than that, by a meaningful amount. But the very low food security rate isn’t.

Looking back over a longer time period, the food insecurity rate in 1999 was 10.1%. It rose every year, but one thereafter until 2012. At the same time, the very low food security rate inched up, though not yearly until 2009.

We see a slight drop then, but a return to the prior rate — 5.7% — the following year. And, as the foregoing indicates, that’s basically where it’s stuck.

Food Costs and SNAP

The typical U.S. household spent $50 a week per person for food last year. This is 17% more than the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits.

But the percent is considerably higher for households with incomes of at least 185% of the federal poverty line, the income eligibility cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

These households spent $52.50 a week per person or 30% more than what the Thrifty Food Plan would allot them. As in the past, these figures are among the many that tells us SNAP benefits are too low.

The more telling, however, are the food insecurity rates among households that received these benefits for the entire 12 months the survey covered.

More than half the households — 51.9% — were food insecure. And well over half of these — 25.5% — had very low food security. Both these rates are somewhat higher than in 2012, the last full year before the premature expiration of the SNAP benefits boost the Recovery Act provided.

Food Insecurity in the District of Columbia

USDA reports three-year averages for states and the District to compensate for the relatively small number of households surveyed each year.

During 2012-14, 13.2% of D.C. households — roughly 41,315 — were food insecure. Of these, 4.9% — about 15,335 — couldn’t always afford to buy enough food of any sort for everyone to have enough to eat.

Both these rates are essentially the same as the national rates for the same time period. And both are essentially the same as the District’s rates during 2009-11. They’re considerably higher, however, than the rates during 2002-4, when they were 10.2% and 2.9%.

The just-released results of the American Community Survey don’t yet include current three-year averages for SNAP. We do, however, learn that 14.4% of District households received SNAP benefits last year. This is somewhat higher than the nationwide rate. But it apparently doesn’t translate into less food insecurity.

Don’t know what to make of all of this beyond the obvious. While SNAP benefits are too low everywhere, they’re especially insufficient in high-cost cities like the District, as research I’ve previous cited shows.

SNAP households are expected to spend 30% of their own money on food. Even that much probably wouldn’t make up for the shortfall between SNAP benefits and the costs of even the unrealistic Thrifty Food Plan.

In any case, a family doesn’t live by food alone. High housing costs and extraordinarily high childcare costs dwarf the estimated amount a family would need for food in the District.

So one has to assume that at least some families spend less on food than what’s supposed to be their share because that’s the only way they can pay the rent — and the only way they can work if they’ve got children who can’t be left to fend for themselves or with a friend of family member.

We’ve got a broad network of nonprofits that provide free food and/or meals to low-income District residents. But as Bread for the World’s president has said, “We can’t ‘food bank’ our way out of hunger.”

The new USDA figures confirm this not only for the District, but elsewhere. Yet we’re a long way from long-advocated increases in SNAP benefits — and a long way as well, it seems, from federal appropriations that would increase the reach of other anti-hunger programs.

In fact, we’ll be lucky if the news from Capitol Hill is no news.

 

 


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.


Food Hardship Rate Rises Nationwide, Drops in DC

March 6, 2012

The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center delivers some bad news for the nation as a whole and some moderately good news for the District of Columbia.

Food Hardship Nationwide

Nationwide, the food hardship rate increased somewhat in 2011, hitting 18.6% of households surveyed. This means that nearly one in five at some point during the year didn’t have enough money to buy the food the family needed.

The annual rate masks the extent of the upward trend. The food hardship rate during the first quarter of the year was 17.9%. By the fourth quarter, it had risen to 19.4%.

Ongoing high unemployment and underemployment rates account for part of the increase, FRAC says. But rising food prices and the freeze in food stamp benefit increases were also factors.

Costs of the items in the Thrifty Food Plan  market baskets rose 6.2% during 2011. That would ordinarily lead to an increase in food stamp benefits.

But when the Recovery Act boosted the benefits, it also suspended the annual food cost adjustments. Food stamps thus lost 6.2% of their purchasing power last year, though they were still worth more than they would have been without the boost.

Food Hardship in the District

Here in the District, the food hardship rate dropped from 18.9% in 2010 to 16.5% in 2011.

Last year, the District was right in the middle of FRAC’s state rankings. Now it’s slightly below the middle. Twenty-seven states had higher food hardship rates. In 17 of them, rates were at or above 20%.

As I’ve remarked before, the state ranking is, for the District, something of an apples to oranges comparison, since the District is only a city, notwithstanding its various state-like functions.

Fortunately, FRAC also provides food hardship rates for Congressional districts — these reflecting two-year averages to compensate for relatively small survey samples.

Here the District is again somewhat below the median, with a ranking of 295, based on a two-year average of 15.8%.

Nothing to stand up and cheer about. But a whole lot better than the 33.3% in the top-ranking district, which (in gerrymandered fashion) embraces the northern and eastern parts of Houston.

Policy Implications

So what’s the takeaway? Nothing new, but nonetheless important.

It’s crucial, FRAC says, to grow the economy in a way that provides full-time jobs at decent wages. At the same time, we need to strengthen income supports, e.g., unemployment insurance, low-income tax credits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Federal nutrition programs must be strengthened as well so that they reach more households in need and “with more robust benefits.”

For the long term, the latter would involve changing the basis for calculating food stamp benefits — a FRAC recommendation I’ve been harping on for some time.

More immediately, however, Congress has a Fiscal Year 2013 budget to pass.

The President has again recommended that it restore the months it shaved off the boost to help pay for the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act.

Also (again) that it temporarily suspend the time limit that now jeopardizes food stamp benefits for many poor able-bodied adults without dependents.

He proposes modest increases for some key child nutrition programs, including WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

He’s also proposing a bit more for TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program) — perhaps enough to sustain, at the current level, the stream¬† food products that flow to our country’s severely stressed pantries and soup kitchens.

But, as FRAC tactfully observes, “some in Congress” are proposing reductions in federal nutrition programs.

We’re told to expect a House budget plan much like last year’s. That would mean, among other things, a food stamp block grant structured to cut federal spending for the program by some $127 billion over the first ten years.

Some other programs — WIC and TEFAP, for example — would be slated for cuts. They’re doubly vulnerable, since they’re not protected from the across-the-board cuts that will kick in next January.

No doubt we’ve got to grapple with the projected long-term deficit. And the short-term prospects for tax revenues are fair to middlin’.

But “even in difficult times,” FRAC says, “we have the resources to eliminate hunger for everyone.” We could, in fact, gain at least $167.5 billion a year if we did.

Knowing this, the new food hardship figures should prompt second thoughts by our decision-makers — even those safety-net-slashing “some in Congress.”


DC Reports 72 Percent of Emergency Food Needs Unmet

January 9, 2012

The headlined figure is erroneous and other D.C. figures doubtful. Brief explanation in the update at the end.

For the first time in at least four years, the District of Columbia is represented in the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual report on hunger and homelessness in America’s cities.

We learn some interesting — and disturbing — things about hunger in the District. We’ve already gotten more detailed (and more accurate) information on local homelessness.*

So here’s about hunger, with some prefatory remarks to put the figures in perspective.

About the Survey

The reported figures reflect the District’s responses to a survey that the Conference distributes to all cities represented on its hunger and homelessness task force.

This year, 29 cities responded — some very large, some quite small. And some very large cities, e.g., Miami and New York City, absent.

I mention this because, as the report acknowledges, the survey results aren’t necessarily representative of conditions nationwide — not even those in the Conference’s 1,139 members.

They do, however, provide some context for what the District reported about needs for emergency food assistance, i.e., requests for take-home foods at local pantries and meals at dining rooms for low-income residents.

These are how the survey measures hunger — another reason we should be cautious about conclusions.

Key Figures

Between September 1, 2010 and August 31, 2011:

  • Requests for emergency food assistance in the District increased 24%.
  • This is 8.5% higher than the average increase for the 25 other cities that provided a figure. The average, however, masks a huge variation — from a 40% increase in Kansas City to an 11% decrease in San Francisco.
  • Of the people requesting assistance from District sources, 45% were elderly, 40% were in families and 30% were employed.
  • For all responding cities, the average for the elderly was just 19% — and this includes the egregiously high percent in the District. Averages for families and employed people were respectively 51% and 26%.
  • Local food pantries and dining rooms were unable to meet 72% of the demand for emergency food assistance. They reportedly had to turn people away, cut back on the amount of food they distributed or served and/or reduce the number of times people could visit each month.
  • The average for the 13 other cities that could estimate unmet need was slightly under 24%.
  • Yet the District reported a 25% increase in the number of pounds of food distributed — 30 million in all.
  • The increase was the highest reported. However, nine cities reported more pounds of distributed food, including two considerably smaller than D.C.
  • The District’s emergency food assistance budget, as reported, increased to $14 million — up by 17%. This reflects funds from both public and private sources, but not the dollar value of food donations, assuming survey directions were followed.
  • The median average for reported budgets was about $3.8 million, but the range is so large that I doubt all cities calculated the same way.

Prospects for 2012

The District expects requests for emergency food assistance to increase substantially in 2012, as do nine of the other reporting cities.

It also expects resources to decrease substantially. Eleven other cities do as well, while an additional 11 expect moderate decreases.

Hard to know what to make of these diverse projections. We do, however, know that the District has its eye on Capitol Hill.

The biggest challenges it cites are all cuts in federal support for safety net programs — namely, but perhaps not only the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, WIC and the food stamp program.

These programs fared better than one might have expected, especially given what the House Republican majority had passed. So did the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which a number of surveyed cities were concerned about.

Yet the figures the District reported suggest large unmet challenges with the funding and other resources now available.

Are our local nonprofits — and the Capital Area Food Bank, which helps supply them — really unable to meet even a third of emergency food needs?

* The District reported that “homeless shelters did not turn away homeless families.” This may be technically true because homeless families generally have to seek shelter through an intake center. But even the DC Department of Human Services acknowledges that homeless families were denied shelter, even if they had no place to stay.

UPDATE: The Conference of Mayors’ report identifies the Capital Area Food Bank as a primary contact for the District’s figures on emergency food assistance. Page Dohl Crosland, Senior Director for Marketing and Communications at CAFB, has informed me that the unmet need figure is inaccurate.

CAFB provided the Gray administration with figures, but they were generally for the entire Washington Metro area. Someone apparently misinterpreted the numbers it put in the unmet need part of the survey form. CAFB estimates the unmet need for the Metro area as a whole at 25%.