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.


Acute Food Needs Now Monthly Events For More Than Three Million U.S. Households

October 25, 2011

Food pantry visits are becoming “the new normal,” reports Feeding America, the country’s largest charitable food distribution organization.

The “new normal” here refers to a shift in the role food pantries play in helping low-income people feed themselves and their families.

People used to seek help from food pantries when they had what Feeding America refers to as “temporary acute food needs.”

Now, it says, a majority of clients use pantries “as part of their long-term strategies to supplement monthly food shortfalls.” In other words, “acute food needs” aren’t occasional emergencies. They’re regular, foreseeable events.

Feeding America has come to this conclusion by analyzing client responses to a survey it conducted in 2009.

According to the new analysis:

  • More than half (54%) of the clients surveyed had used a pantry for at least six months during the past year.
  • More than a third of them (36%) had used a pantry at least once a month during the past year.
  • These frequent users reported using a pantry for, on average, more than 28 consecutive months.

We learn two different, perhaps related facts about these recurrent and/or frequent pantry clients.

First, 58% of them received SNAP (food stamp) benefits — another clear indication that the benefits often don’t cover the costs of a month’s worth of food.

Second, a disproportionate number of recurrent users were seniors. One out of three of all recurrent users was 60 or older. And 56% of them were long-term recurrent users.

This too sheds some light on the food stamp program.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest report on SNAP participation trends, only 34% of eligible seniors, i.e., those at least 60 years old, were enrolled in Fiscal Year 2009. This is 38% lower than for the eligible population as a whole.

The low participation rate for seniors continues a long-term trend. Studies have produced a variety of explanations, summarized by the Food Research and Action Center in a broader review of research on access and access barriers to getting food stamps.

Some of the barriers deter participation by other groups as well, e.g., the stigma attached to “welfare,” complex applications processes, difficulties in getting to a food stamp office, long waiting times once there, the need to go back and wait recurrently to again prove eligibility.

But one barrier stands out for seniors in particular. They decide the hassles just aren’t worth the small amount they can get.

USDA’s recently-released report on the characteristics of SNAP households shows that, for most, the benefits are truly small.

Of the fewer than 2.9 million seniors who got food stamps in 2010, 80% lived alone. Their average monthly benefit was $119 — or about $1.30 per meal.

This might explain why some low-income seniors decide to rely on their own scarce resources, supplemented by free food from a friendly pantry rather than cope with the hassles involved in getting food stamps.

Also why seniors who do get food stamps would have to develop an anti-hunger strategy that includes regular visits to a pantry.

Young and old food pantry clients alike face greater risks of hunger in the months to come.

As Feeding America notes, food prices are rising. Food companies are adopting new efficiencies and thus have less surplus to donate.

Bad economic times have reduced charitable donations from other sources. Also triggered cutbacks in funding by some state and local governments.

And to top it all, Congress has cut funding for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program by 40%, leaving $80 million less for local homeless services programs, including food pantries.

The House of Representatives has approved a $63 million cut for TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides about 25% of the foods that Feeding America’s food bank partners distribute to emergency providers like pantries.

Maybe hope for TEFAP in the Senate, though ultimately the House would have to back down.

Still and all, “the beginning of the ‘perfect storm,'” as Feeding America says.

House Appropriations Bill Takes Broad Aim At Food Assistance Programs

June 21, 2011

I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that the just-passed funding allocations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture are fine, except for the cut to WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

The House also took the knife to two other nationwide food assistance programs — the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

Neither of these, I think, is a household word. So here’s a brief overview of what the programs do and the cuts that the House just voted for — or rather, that House Republicans voted for, since they passed the bill with no Democratic support.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program provides, as its name suggests, food products — all packaged or canned — to supplement the diets of low-income people.

USDA purchases the products, selecting a mix that will compensate for common nutritional deficiencies. It distributes them to state agencies, which in turn distribute them in food packages — either directly or through nonprofit organizations.

At this point, 39 states and the District of Columbia participate in the program, along with Indian reservations in two states that don’t participate.

Eligibility is limited to two groups — the same population that’s eligible for WIC and seniors 60 years and older with household incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

Since pregnant women, mothers and their young children can’t participate in both WIC and CSFP, about 96% of participants are seniors. In Fiscal Year 2010, an average of 497,000 of them got a food package in any given month.

The program was then funded at $171.4 million. The House has cut its funding to $138.5 million — about 21% less than it’s getting now under the continuing resolution that’s this year’s substitute for a regular federal budget.

When the House passed its original version of the CR, the Food Research and Action Center warned that the proposed $20 million cut to CSFP would deny food packages to 81,000 low-income seniors.

The cut that’s now been approved would leave CFSP with $12.9 million less than what it would have had under the House CR. So it seems reasonable to suppose that an even larger number of seniors will lose their food packages — if the Senate doesn’t reject the cut.

These are seniors who, if living alone, have annual incomes at or below $14,157 — less than $1,180 per month. They’d reportedly have to pay about $50 a month to purchase the foods they now get in their CSFP packages.

A big bite out of a small budget that’s also got to cover all other basic needs.

TEFAP also provides food assistance in the form of commodities that have already been processed and packaged.

Here too, USDA purchases and distributes them to states, based on what states choose from a list that looks much like the CSFP list. USDA also gives states a variable quantity of bonus commodities, i.e., foods it buys to support producers’ prices when supply exceeds demand.

The commodities then go directly to soup kitchens, food pantries and other emergency food providers or to food banks that distribute them to such programs.

As I wrote last year, TEFAP had less for food purchases than it did in Fiscal Year 2009 — though food banks and the partner agencies they distribute to were reporting shortfalls.

The House has cut TEFAP funding by $63 million — $51 million less for commodity purchases and $12 million less for storage and distribution.

Feeding America and 46 other concerned organizations say that the emergency food system is already facing a projected 50% reduction in bonus commodities. The House cuts on top of this loss “will force many local agencies to reduce support for existing clients or turn new clients away.”

This at a time when need is extraordinarily high and the system already strained.

The House agriculture appropriations bill now goes to the Senate, which doesn’t have even a basic budget plan yet. What will happen next is anybody’s guess. Yet another continuing resolution wouldn’t surprise me.

Federal Emergency Food Program Helps Feed Hungry DC Area Residents

February 16, 2010

As I recently wrote, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is said to need a supplemental appropriation because it can’t otherwise provide enough food commodities to meet the increasing pressures on food banks.

Still on my learning curve, I contacted Marian Peele, the Director of Agency Relations at the Capital Area Food Bank, to find out what the situation is there.

CAFB is the Feeding America network partner for the greater Washington D.C. area. It uses federal funds channeled through the D.C. and Virginia state governments to purchase TEFAP food commodities. It also gets free TEFAP bonus commodities when they’re available and suitable to its needs.

All told, CAFB distributes about 23 million pounds of food a year. Nearly 14% of this comes through TEFAP. The rest is donated by various food industry sources and food collected by a vast number of organizations and individuals.

CAFB distributes the food it gets to more than 700 partner agencies, i.e., local nonprofits that either prepare and serve them or give them to low-income people to take home. Organizations I’ve written about before, including Bread for the City, Miriam’s Kitchen and So Others Might Eat are all partner agencies and thus, in part, dependent on TEFAP. CAFB also distributes some food directly to local low-income residents.

Peele says that TEFAP foods are “an enormous help to [their] agencies and thus the community members who receive them.” She says they’re often healthier choices than foods donated from other sources, except for the fresh produce CAFB gets from local farmers.

As we know, the recession has vastly increased the number of people needing emergency food assistance. The newspapers are full of stories about people going to food pantries who never sought help before. Feeding America reports that its food bank network is serving one in eight Americans–46% more than in 2006.

Calls to the CAFB Hunger Lifeline, an emergency food referral, have increased 91%. Peele says that partner agencies report increases in food distributions ranging from 85% to 200%. They’re dealing with longer lines, cutting back on portions and still running out of food faster than ever before.

The organizations that are calling for a supplemental appropriation say that it’s needed to avert a drop of 50% or more in the dollar value of this year’s bonus commodity donations. This doesn’t mean that CAFB would receive that much less. But it does show what the food bank may be up against as it tries to keep up with the rising tide of hunger in our nation’s capital.

Emergency Food Providers Short On Supplies

February 7, 2010

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is one of the lesser known but important parts of our safety net. In fact, I knew virtually nothing about it until I started working on this posting.

Thanks to the ‘net, I’ve learned how something I’ve long opposed–agricultural price supports–is linked to something I deeply care about–ensuring that poor people have enough to eat. Organizations representing these seemingly disparate interests have come together because TEFAP urgently needs additional funds.

Here’s the story.

Under TEFAP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes food commodities to states, which then distribute them to food banks and/or directly to emergency food providers like soup kitchens and pantries. Feeding America, which networks food banks across the country, says that TEFAP provides a steady stream of foods to the banks–often the most nutritious foods they distribute to hungry people.

USDA purchases some of the commodities with an annual appropriation that’s linked to the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan–the agency’s lowest-cost estimate of a nutritionally-adequate market basket. It also distributes so-called bonus commodities, i.e., foods it buys to support producers’ prices when supply exceeds demand.

In Fiscal Year 2009, the regular TEFAP appropriation provided $250 million for food purchases. The economic recovery act added $150 million. And states got about $400 million in bonus commodities.

For Fiscal Year 2010, the regular appropriation for food purchases dropped to $248 million due to the dip in food prices. An additional $60 million was appropriated specifically for cheese and other dairy. (Do we perceive a successful lobbying effort here?)

So it seems that funds for regular commodity purchases are down by $92 million. Restrictions on how USDA can use certain carryover funds mean that bonus commodity donations could drop to less than $200 million.

Meanwhile, the recession has strained the capacities of food banks and the providers they serve. A September 2009 Feeding America survey found that:

  • More than half of the 176 participating food banks or the agencies that help them distribute food had had to turn people away.
  • About 78% of the food banks or their partner agencies had to reduce the amount of food they distributed or the frequency of distributions.
  • For 91% of the food banks, unemployment was a critical factor in increasing the need for emergency food.

When the survey was conducted, the unemployment rate was 9.8%. It was just one-tenth of a percent lower in January and expected to peak at 10.5%-11% in the third quarter of this fiscal year. Last month 6.3 million people had been jobless for at least 27 weeks–900,000 more than in September.

So there’s every reason to believe that needs for emergency food assistance have already increased and will increase further before the Fiscal Year 2011 budget kicks in.

The organizations mentioned above are calling on the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committees to increase Fiscal Year 2010 funding for TEFAP by $250 million.

If I’ve got the math right, this would still leave food banks with less in food commodities from USDA than they had last year. But it would minimize the emergency in emergency food assistance programs and give a boost to farmers too.