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.



Hunger Struck More Families Last Year, USDA Reports

September 7, 2012

September is Hunger Action Month — a campaign launched by Feeding America to get us involved in efforts to help end hunger in this country.

And hunger there surely is, as the latest food (in)security report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

Last year, nearly 174.9 million households sometimes — or often — didn’t have the resources to buy the food that all members needed “for an active, healthy life.” These are households USDA classifies as food insecure.

There were more of them than in 2010, but the percent increase isn’t statistically significant, USDA says.

The bigger news, I think, is that the number of households with very low food security, i.e., those in which at least one member sometimes scrimped on meals or skipped them altogether, rose to more than 6.8 million — 5.7% of all households surveyed.

This is statistically significant. And it puts the very low food security rate back up to where it was during the recession we’re still recovering from.

All told, nearly 16.9 million people sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. For adults, in the main, this typically meant hunger during seven months of the year — and for a few days during each of these months.

Drilling down a bit, we see that:

  • Food insecurity afflicted 20.6% of households with children — nearly 8 million families.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in slightly under half these households — and actually experienced hunger in 374,000 of them.
  • Food insecurity rates were highest for single-mother families — 36.8% or more than 3.5 million families.
  • More than 1.1 million of them — 11.6% — were so food insecure as to fall into the generally recurrent hunger category.
  • Single-father households also had unusually high food insecurity rates — 24.9%. But there were far fewer of them.

The correlation with poverty is, of course, very high. So not surprisingly, we see significant race/ethnicity differences.

  • Among black households, 25.1% were food insecure, as compared to 11.4% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The very low food security, i.e., hunger, rate among black households was 10.5%, as compared to 4.6% for white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 26.% and the very low food security rate 8.3%.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in 14.6% of black households, as compared to 6.7% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The child food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 17.4%.

Well over 88% of food insecure households were poor enough to qualify for food stamps. The USDA report doesn’t tell us how many received them. It does, however, tell us how households below the program’s standard income eligibility ceiling fared.

On the one hand, a large majority managed to keep enough food on the table without food stamps for all of 2011.

The survey results don’t tell us how, though we might guess that free school meals played a part. Perhaps also the food pantries and other emergency sources that Feeding America’s network supplies.

On the other hand, nearly half (49.1%) of the households that received food stamps all year were nevertheless food insecure. And more than one in five (22.3%) were so food insecure that at least one member of the household didn’t always have enough — or anything — to eat.

The new Farm Bill the Senate passed would nevertheless reduce food stamp benefits for about half a million households.

The version pending in the House would do the same. It would also cut off all benefits for at least 1.8 million low-income people, plus free school meals for about 280,000 prospectively hungry children.

If we’re going to end hunger in America — a doable thing in this very wealthy country — the very least our elected representatives can do now is avoid making it worse.

Sad that anyone should have to say something so blatantly self-evident.

Food Security Report Shows Federal Nutrition Programs Working, But Not Well Enough

December 8, 2010

The recent U.S. Department of Agriculture household food security report confirms what we were already quite sure of. The number of food insecure households increased again last year. These are households that, at some point during the year, couldn’t afford to buy enough food for all members to have “active healthy lives.”

The increase wasn’t all that great — 17.4 million households, as compared to 17 million in 2008. But both years’ food insecurity rates were the highest USDA had found since it started doing nationally-representative surveys in 1995.

Similarly, the number of families that were very food insecure inched up a bit — from 6.7 million to 6.8 million. In other words, during the last two years, about a third of all food insecure families had such limited resources that at least one member sometimes had to cut back on the size of his/her meals or skip some altogether.

A breakdown of the household figures tells us that more than 50 million people — 16.6% of the population — suffered food insecurity last year. For children, the rate was an alarming 23.2%. That’s 17.2 million children at risk of hunger.

While this is bad news, it could have been much worse, given the sharp rise in the unemployment rate — up from 7.4% at the end of 2008 to 10% by the end of 2009.

As many have observed, the food stamp program seems to be serving its safety net function, with participation continuously rising to new record levels.

On the other hand, the federal nutrition assistance programs aren’t reaching nearly as many low-income households as they should. According to the Food Research and Action Center, only about two-thirds of eligible people are enrolled in the food stamp program.

During the 2008-9 school year, fewer than half the children poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch also got free or reduced-price breakfasts at their school. Figures for federally-subsidized summer meal programs are even worse.

Nor apparently are the benefits the major programs offer sufficient. About 35% of food insecure households and 56% of very food insecure households received food stamps. By definition, they still couldn’t consistently afford to keep enough food on the table.

Turning to the District, the figures we get are less accurate because USDA uses three-year averages to compensate for small state-level samples. The latest figures thus minimize the impacts of the recession.

With that caveat, 12.9% of D.C. households were food insecure, putting the District below the national rate and smack dab in the middle of a state-by-state ranking.

Somewhat less than a third of these households (4.5%) were very food insecure. On this measure, the District ranks lower than 36 states. So, as DC Hunger Solutions says, local efforts may be paying off.

We don’t know how many of the food insecure households were receiving food stamps during the period covered by the USDA average. What we do know is that, beginning in April 2009, those that did began receiving higher-than-usual food stamp benefits due to the nationwide 13.6% maximum boost provided by the economic recovery act.

Now the duration of the boost has been scaled back — first to help pay for some additional fiscal relief to the states and again when the House adopted the Senate’s version of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act. The Congressional Research Services estimates the loss when the boost ends at $10 to $15 per person per month.

Look for a bigger uptick in food insecurity when that happens, both nationwide and here in the District.

Congress Moves To Improve Nutrition for Poor Women and Children

August 19, 2009

WIC (formally, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) is one of our best public investments in the health, growth and development of the next generation.

For more than 34 years, it’s helped eligible pregnant women and parents with young children purchase foods and beverages needed for a healthful diet. It also provides breastfeeding counseling, other nutrition education and links to local health care services.

Like other child nutrition programs, WIC depends on annual appropriations. They’ve never been large enough to serve everyone who’s eligible. But WIC still has far more participants now than in pre-recession days.

In 2007, participation averaged somewhat under 8.3 million women and children. In May of this year, it was up to more than 9 million. The Obama administration projects Fiscal Year 2010 participation at a monthly average of 9.8 million.

Just before the Senate recessed, it passed its version of the Fiscal Year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill (S. 1406). This is the bill that provides funding for WIC, as well as food stamps and the other child nutrition programs.

The WIC part of the bill is similar, though not identical, to the provisions in the agriculture appropriations bill the House passed in July (H.R. 2997). They’re both good news.

First off, both bills will increase funding for WIC. The Senate version would provide $192 million more in new funds than the appropriations for this fiscal year, including the increase that was part of the economic recovery package. With the estimated balance in contingency funds, the total available for WIC would be somewhat more than $8 million–nearly 15% more than the original Fiscal Year 2009 appropriation.

The House bill would provide $10 million less than the Senate bill. However, the House Appropriations Committee states in its report that it will monitor food costs, participation and available funds and “take additional action, as necessary” to ensure that there’s enough funding for all eligible applicants.

The funding increase is just part of the good news. Both the House and Senate committee reports specifically state that some portion of the appropriations are to be used to increase fruit and vegetable vouchers up to the amounts recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

The bills thus override a decision the Bush administration made to limit program costs by covering considerably smaller allotments of fruits and vegetables than what IOM had determined was necessary for a healthy diet. So we should expect further improvements in the recently-expanded WIC food packages.

Of course, WIC is a small part of the agriculture appropriations bills. There are many differences between them that have to be resolved before the Department of Agriculture has a final Fiscal Year 2010 budget. The new fiscal year begins October 1, so we may see a final version some time in September.

Obesity and Poverty

January 20, 2009

The Executive Director of Bread for the City has written an open letter to the Washington Post in response to its recent article on obesity and hunger. The letter reports recent steps Bread has taken to help its clients “not only eat, but eat well”–nutrition counseling and healthy cooking classes, improvements in the nutrition profile of the foods it provides.

It’s good to see Bread for the City taking the lead on this important issue and especially to learn that it’s practicing what it preaches. But, as its letter says, high obesity rates among poor people are not something Bread and other nonprofits can tackle alone. And they must be tackled because obesity is linked to serious (and costly) chronic health problems, including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.

Bread calls on the new Administration to expand access to food assistance programs in a way that prioritizes nutrition. As the Post reports, the incoming Secretary of Agriculture seems ready to propose higher nutrition standards for in-school meals. These would certainly help. But, as everyone knows, a more comprehensive approach is needed.

Of course, obesity is not restricted to poor people. It’s a major public health issue for the entire population. However, the federal government and state and local governments too have greater opportunities to influence what poor people do and don’t do. They can exercise this influence sensibly and respectfully or otherwise.

The federal government already shapes the diets of some poor people with its list of foods state agencies can authorize under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Now some are proposing that it restrict use of food stamps to healthy foods and beverages.

This idea is fraught with problems. An article in USDA’s Amber Waves identifies some of them. As it indicates, there’s no easy way to draw a bright white line between healthy and unhealthy food products.  Nor is it certain that the resulting restrictions would meaningfully change purchasing behavior. To these practical issues, I would add the paternalistic coercion that would be involved. Uncle Sam knows what’s best for you and is going to see to it that you live right.

It would make more sense, I think, to look at the obesity issue holistically and design a variety of coordinated programs that would empower poor people to maintain a balanced diet. Here are four basic questions that can trigger solutions:

  • Do poor people have the resources to stave off hunger–a possible trigger for overeating and fat storage?
  • Do they have the resources to buy a variety of healthful foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables?
  • Do they have ready access to sources of a variety of healthful foods?
  • Do they have the know-how to maintain a balanced diet on a limited budget?

Despite a number of promising initiatives, the answer to all these questions is a resounding No.

So there’s a lot of work here for governments at all levels and for private sector businesses, nutritionists, other health professionals and nonprofits, including Bread. We’ve enough experience to know they’ll achieve most if they collaborate.


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