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.


What Map the Meal Says About Hunger In DC

April 28, 2011

As I recently wrote, Feeding America’s Map the Meal project provides food insecurity data for every state in the U.S. Happily, researchers stretched the category to include the District of Columbia.

So here’s a brief summary of what we learn about hunger in the District. I use the term “hunger” because people are counted as food insecure when they say they didn’t always have the resources to buy the food they and their families needed. Seems to me that, at least some of the time, they were probably hungry — not just insecure about where the next meal would come from.

In 2009:

  • 15.8% of District residents — 93,180 — were food insecure. This is slightly below the nationwide 16.6% rate, but about 4% higher than the rates for either Virginia or Maryland and more than twice as high as the rates for nearby Arlington and Montgomery counties.
  • Only 63% of food insecure District residents were eligible for food stamps, even under the higher eligibility ceiling authorized in 2009.
  • The average per meal cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — the basis for calculating food stamp benefits — was 67 cents higher than the national average.
  • So it would have cost somewhat over $53 million to make up the “meal gap,” i.e., the cost of providing all food insecure residents with enough to eat year round.

A couple of thoughts about the fact that we’re looking at 2009 data.

First — and this would be true for most other jurisdictions as well — the unemployment rate was higher then. By the end of the year, it had risen to 11.9%. As of this January, it was down to 9.8%.

For this reason alone, it’s possible that the next round of food insecurity data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will show a somewhat lower rate.

More importantly, the Income Maintenance Administration, which administers the food stamp program in the District, hadn’t implemented the higher income eligibility standard or a related reform that gives some eligible residents larger benefits.

The Food Stamp Expansion Act, which authorizes the changes, was adopted in June 2009. IMA got around to implementing the part that raises the income eligibility ceiling in March 2010.

The part that provides higher benefits for some food stamp recipients may have been implemented now, but only because of a recent legal settlement secured by the Legal Aid Society and pro bono partners.

So the 2009 food insecurity rate for the District may be higher than it would have been if the responsible District agencies had felt as much urgency as hungry residents undoubtedly did.

Or maybe this is an unfair cheap shot. While the DC Council imposed new tasks on IMA, it also agreed to budget cuts that squeezed the agency’s core operations. Perhaps this accounts, at least in part, for the delay.

I remarked awhile ago, that District officials characteristically do a better job at adopting new progressive policies than at providing the resources to make sure that existing policies can achieve what they’re supposed to. The same apparently can be said for follow-through on new policies.

Low-income residents really shouldn’t have to rely on attorneys to get them the benefits they’re legally entitled to. The District may have budget constraints, but what about theirs?

New Insights Into Food Insecurity In The U.S.

April 21, 2011

Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report takes studies of food insecurity to the next level. It’s a unique, multi-faceted presentation of the problem that points to changes needed in both poverty measurement and federal anti-hunger policy.

The gap in the title refers to the estimated number of additional meals that people who said they couldn’t always afford to eat would have if they did. The methodology used to calculate the gap is somewhat complicated. So I’ll just refer those interested to the executive summary.

The map is online and interactive, with different shades of green indicating different food insecurity rates in counties across the U.S.

Mouse over it and you get statewide food insecurity rates, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food security report for 2009.

But that’s only the beginning. You also get:

  • The number of food insecure people.
  • The percentages of food insecurity in three different income bands based on eligibility ceilings for food stamps and for some other federal nutrition assistance programs like WIC.
  • The additional funds that would have been needed to provide everyone with enough to eat in 2009.
  • The average cost of a meal, based on USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket used to determine food stamp benefits.

And you can get these data in print-out form for every county and food bank service area in the country. Coming soon, I understand, will be the same data for each Congressional district.

All this detail yields some important insights.

  • Food insecurity is everywhere — not just in the states or areas within states that we’re accustomed to thinking of as poor.
  • A large percentage of food insecure people aren’t eligible for federal nutrition assistance programs — a nationwide average of 29% in 2009.
  • People may be food insecure even with food stamps in part because the Thrifty Food Plan market basket costs considerably more in some places than the average nationwide.
  • For somewhere around $22 billion a year we could provide everyone in the country with enough to eat.

The state and county-level information should help policymakers target their efforts. Also advocates, theĀ  network of food banks that Feeding America supplies and the pantries, dining rooms and other programs that get food from the banks.

There are also several lessons — most not new — for policymakers at the federal level.

First off, we urgently need a final, more realistic poverty measure. How can a family be well above the federal poverty line if they can’t afford enough to eat?

But the new poverty measure shouldn’t just be, as now envisioned, an alternative tool for analysis and program assessment. It should be used to define income eligibility criteria for public assistance like food stamps.

Yes, this would be politically dicey. But there’s something fundamentally wrong when more than 14.5 million food insecure people couldn’t qualify for federal food assistance because they were too far above the poverty line that will still be used as a cut-off when the new measure is published.

Yet even many people in the food stamp program now report food insecurity. The latest USDA figures are yet more evidence that the way food stamp benefits are calculated should be changed.

The Food Research and Action Center has recommended ditching the Thrifty Food Plan in favor of USDA’s lowest-cost food budget for normal use. Also cutting the time lag for the annual inflation adjustment so that benefits don’t reflect food prices from as much as 16 months earlier.

Even these relatively modest changes would entail some additional costs. But if the Feeding America meal-gap closing figure is anywhere in the ballpark, the funds needed would be a miniscule fraction of the total federal budget.

Most immediately, Congress should restore at least the $2.2 billion it took from the food stamp budget last December, as the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget for USDA proposes.

Recall that this would still leave the program shy the $11.9 billion that was cut to help pay for last summer’s whittled-down jobs bill.

Will Congress take this minimal step to keep more people from going hungry? Your guess is as good as mine.

But given the current spending cut battle on Capitol Hill, the prospects don’t look rosy.