Congress Approves Free Suppers For Poor DC Children

October 9, 2009

A piece of good news in the midst of so much doom and gloom. The just-passed final version of the Fiscal Year 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill makes the District of Columbia eligible for federally-subsidized suppers for low-income children in after-school programs.

As I wrote awhile ago, D.C. was added to the eligibility list in the bill the House of Representatives passed. But it was dropped in favor of Wisconsin in the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee–maybe, just maybe because the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Committee represents Wisconsin.

The version the House and Senate agreed to includes both D.C. and Wisconsin, plus Nevada and Connecticut, which was also in the House bill and is, not coincidentally the home state of the chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

In view of the politics here, a lot of credit goes to our non-voting representative in the House and to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which worked hard behind the scenes to get the District’s need for free suppers on the radar screen.

What the Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions says is true not only for D.C. families, but for families nationwide. Parents who are working extra-long or non-traditional hours or struggling to get into (or back into) the workforce need extended after-school care for their children. These children need more than a snack, even if their parents have the time and resources to serve a nutritious evening meal at home. And many don’t.

So, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I hope Congress will go on to consider the unmet needs of poor children in the 37 states that still aren’t eligible for the subsidized supper program.

That’s only part of the unfinished agenda. Congress needs to change the program eligibility requirements because poor children can’t get even a subsidized snack, let alone supper, in an after-school program, except one operated by a school, unless they happen to live in an area where at least 50% of school-age children are poor. That may not be much of a problem in D.C., but it certainly is elsewhere.

And surely Congress should do something about the reimbursement rates too. Hard to see how an after-school program can serve tasty, nutritious suppers when the maximum reimbursement rate is, as for lunches, just $2.85 per meal.


Bring Free Suppers To Poor DC Children

August 8, 2009

I wrote awhile ago about the enormous stress on after-school programs in the District. More children are showing up for these programs hungry because they didn’t have dinner the night before. One more thing to chalk up to the recession.

The best these programs can do is serve more hefty snacks and let children take extras home. Even this is creating big budget pressures because the federal government reimburses at a maximum of $0.74 per snack. And, for sites that aren’t run by public schools, snacks for children over 12 aren’t reimbursed at all.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Under existing legislation, eligible programs in 10 states can get reimbursed for serving suppers. The Fiscal Year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would add the District to the list.

The companion bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee wouldn’t. But the full Senate could add D.C. when the bill comes to the floor.

Those of you who don’t live in D.C. can support this action by e-mailing or calling your Senators. It’s a good step toward expanding the supper program nationwide when the Child Nutrition Act is reauthorized. No comment here on how we D.C. residents lack our own leverage.

The District has made great strides with its after-school nutrition programs. In 2008, they served about 14,650 children–more than five and a half times as many as in 2004. Just think what a difference it would make if even some of these programs could serve all school-age children a healthy evening meal.

New Report Lays Out Plan to End Child Hunger

July 5, 2009

When Obama was running for President, he promised a campaign to end child hunger by 2015. Now the Food Research and Action Center has issued a set of strategies to achieve this goal.

Each strategy includes specific recommendations. Here’s a summary:

  • Restore economic growth, with a focus on creating more good jobs for low-income workers
  • Raise the incomes of the lowest-income families by retaining and building on the refundable tax credits in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, improving other income supports and increasing the minimum wage
  • Strengthen the SNAP/Food Stamp Program by expanding eligibility, increasing benefits so that recipients can afford a minimally adequate diet, improving the way benefits are calculated and reducing red tape
  • Strengthen child nutrition programs so that more children participate and receive sufficient, nutritious food
  • Engage the entire federal government in ending child hunger
  • Work with states, localities and nonprofits to expand participation in federal nutrition programs, e.g., by providing grants for outreach
  • Make sure all families have convenient access to reasonably priced, healthy food, e.g., by supporting the development of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods

This is a large agenda. But it’s doable if we, as a nation have the will. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans would support the FRAC approach. But we’ll need ongoing leadership at the top, in both the Administration and the Congress.

And that, I think, means that they’ll need to hear from us. Because good intentions could well be swamped by competing priorities and concerns about the deficit.

The Administration has proposed $1 billion more per year for the child nutrition programs. But it’s going to take more to end child hunger–let alone move us to the day when every child is born to a family that can afford to feed her.

In the long run, ending child hunger will strengthen the economy and reduce public costs. But will we make the up-front investments to get there?

Poor Children Need Free Suppers Too

June 4, 2009

A recent Washington Post article highlights a major impact of the recession on children’s well-being–pervasive hunger.

D.C. area after-school programs (probably others too) are becoming emergency food providers because so many children are showing up hungry. Programs that used to serve a light snack are finding they need to provide considerably more to compensate for what children aren’t getting at home.

One Southeast program reports that as many as half its students arrive hungry because, although they got free breakfasts and lunches at school, they didn’t get any dinner the night before. And they’re putting extra sandwiches in their backpacks, suggesting they expect no dinner when they get home.

The need is putting enormous stress on the budgets of the nonprofits that run these programs. They can get reimbursed for snacks through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program. But the maximum reimbursement is $0.71 per snack–hardly enough to cover the cost of a nourishing meal.

Under the School Lunch Act, as amended, schools in 10 states are reimbursed for the cost of suppers, as well as snacks, if they are in districts where at least 50% of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty line. The suppers can be served not only on school days, but also on weekends and during holidays.

Other after-school programs in these 10 states are also eligible for supper reimbursements so long as they have “an educational or enrichment purpose.” The reimbursement rate is the same as for school lunches–currently $2.57.

Senator Debby Stabenow (D-MI) has introduced a bill that would extend this program nationwide. It’s the AFTERschool Meals Act of 2009 (S. 990). The bill currently has four cosponsors. It will need more to get the attention it deserves.

The Food Research and Action Center has posted a letter that all you fortunate folks with Senators can automatically e-mail to get more cosponsors.

We disenfranchised D.C. residents can adapt the letter and send it to Senators of our choice. If I had to pick just two, they’d be Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), who chairs the Agriculture Committee, and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Subcommittee on Nutrition and Food Assistance.

Our support can help ensure that the growing number of hungry children have three balanced, nutritious meals a day–at least, during the school year.

Summer meals are a subject for another posting.

What Do We Mean By Affordable Housing?

June 1, 2009

It’s come to me that my recent posting on President Obama’s affordable housing budget skirted the heart of the issue: What do we mean by affordable housing?

When I talk about affordable housing I generally mean housing that’s affordable for poor people. These are the people that federal housing programs classify as “extremely low-income”–those with household incomes at or below 30% of area median income.

But there are also “very low-income” households–those with incomes at or below 50% of the AMI. And then there are just plain low-income households, whose incomes can be as high as 80% of AMI.

There’s obviously a wide spread here. To illustrate, in the District of Columbia, an extremely low-income family of three has an annual income not exceeding $27,700. The maximum for a low-income family of three is more than twice that–$57,600.

Affordable housing programs can be exclusively for extremely and very low-income people. Housing Choice vouchers, for example, are only for them, and 75% of the vouchers must go to the former.

But affordable housing programs also extend to just plain low-income people. For example, homeownership assistance under HOME Investment Partnerships grants is available to anyone with an income no greater than 80% of AMI.

And then there are programs folded into the dialogue that are intended to make home ownership more affordable for moderate, as well as low-income households–FHA home loans, for example.

So it’s easy to see that policymakers and advocates can be talking at cross purposes. We’re all for affordable housing. But affordable for whom?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has addressed this issue by spearheading an open letter to Congress and the Administration. “What we mean by housing,” it says, “is enough homes renting at affordable rates so that our nation’s lowest income families and individuals are assured of safe and decent places to live.”

That will require funding commitments that are not in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. But I think I understand how the Administration can claim leadership on affordable housing anyway.

Most Homeless Families Still Won’t Count Under HEARTH Act

April 27, 2009

Congress will try again this year to pass the HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act. The act will reauthorize the programs that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administers under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

These programs are the main source of federal support for local programs that provide emergency shelter, longer-term housing and supportive services for homeless people and services to prevent homelessness.

One of the most important issues for Congress to resolve is who should be considered homeless for the purposes of HUD-funded programs and services. As I’ve written before, HUD currently uses a highly restrictive definition that excludes large groups of homeless individuals and families.

First the good news. The bills introduced in the Senate (S. 808) and the House (HR. 1877) would expand the general definition of “homeless.”

For example, individuals and families would become eligible for assistance funded under HUD’s Continuum of Care programs if they “will imminently lose their housing” and have no place to go or immediate prospects for securing permanent housing.

Also eligible for the first time would be families with children and unaccompanied youth who are defined as homeless in other federal laws, have a history of unstable housing situations and are likely to continue having difficulties due to any one of a number of specified reasons.

Now the not-good news. The definition still excludes numerous homeless individuals and families. For example:

  • Families living in motels or hotels simply because they can’t afford to rent an apartment.
  • Families who are doubled up with friends or relatives, again simply because they can’t afford a place of their own.
  • Individuals and couples without children in either of these situations.
  • Youth who’ve recently fled their homes because of domestic violence or abuse.
  • Individuals who are being discharged from a mental hospital, jail or other institution but who didn’t formerly live in a shelter or “place not meant for human habitation.”

Moreover, most local programs would be able to use only 10% of their COC funds for the families with children and unaccompanied youth who would become officially homeless under the new definition. So the programs would still be skewed toward people who fit the old even more restrictive definition.

And now the bad news. Buried in the legislation is a provision that effectively allows local communities to continue ignoring most of the newly-recognized homeless individuals and families in their annual homeless counts. All they’ll have to do is begin counting individuals leaving institutions after some former stint in a shelter or on the streets.

So we will won’t know how many homeless people there are–not even close.

And if we don’t know this, how will we know if the HEARTH Act is working? The answer is, We won’t.