The Weekly Food Research and Action Center News Digest highlights what's new on hunger, nutrition and poverty issues at FRAC, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around the network of national, state and local anti-poverty and anti-hunger organizations, and in the media. The Digest will alert you to trends, reports, news items and resources and, when available, link you directly to them.
Afterschool programs are increasingly becoming emergency food providers to low-income children as the recession continues and more families are forced into poverty. D.C. has seen an increase in the number of children – from 1,550 a day in 2002 to 14,650 a day in October 2008 - fed through federally-qualified afterschool programs, according to D.C. Hunger Solutions’ director Alex Ashbrook. This summer, it’s expected that nonprofit budgets will be strained as more children need to be fed in summer programs. Some nonprofit leaders don’t think that the federal reimbursement for meals and snacks served by programs through the Summer Food Service program will be adequate to meet needs; the higher numbers are forecast as SNAP/Food Stamp use (an indicator of the economic situation) has risen dramatically in recent months to new record levels. The number of families experiencing food insecurity is likely higher, since SNAP/Food Stamps only provide support to two-thirds of those eligible. D.C. programs are seeing the effects already – children in a tennis program in Ward 8 report that they have had no dinner the night before, and come to the afterschool program hungry in spite of receiving subsidized school breakfast and lunch. “The fact is that a lot of families can’t afford to pay for dinner, so it’s up to nonprofits and the government to provide the food they need,” said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center. Legislation expanding a pilot program that serves full evening meals in afterschool programs was introduced recently by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). Currently, 10 states offer meals through the pilot program, which will soon start in Maryland. Programs serving meals to students in pilot states are reimbursed $2.57 per child; meals must conform to government nutrition guidelines. D.C. afterschool programs, at this time, do what they can to help hungry children. The Northeast Performing Arts Group hands out soup, bread and peanut butter to hungry participants because their energy levels are so low. “I ask why they don’t have any energy, and they say they haven’t had enough to eat,” said program director Rita Jackson. “Then I talk to their mothers and they tell me there’s no food in the house. It breaks my heart every day.”
2. Alliance to End Hunger Director Picked for USDA Post
Max Finberg, most recently the director of the Alliance to End Hunger, was chosen to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Director of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Appointed to the position by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Finberg will continue the agency’s “long history of working with faith-based and community organizations to help those in need,” providing food and other forms of assistance in the U.S. and abroad. Finberg is the founding director of the Mickey Leland/Bill Emerson Hunger Fellows Program at the Congressional Hunger Center, and served as special assistant to the ambassador at the U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture.
Wisconsin’s Milton School District has so many children coming to school hungry that they’re considering offering breakfast starting in the 2009-10 school year. The district is currently surveying parents and students to ascertain the need and support for the meal. Teachers currently provide snacks to hungry children. The breakfast program would offer the meal to elementary and intermediate students in their classrooms; middle and high school students would get breakfast at the break between first and second periods (and they could eat in their second period classes). About 50 percent of parents and two-thirds of students support serving breakfast at school.
About 50 percent of students in New York’s Troy City School District participate in school breakfast, a higher rate than the average of 20 percent across the state. Troy schools offer the “grab and go” option for serving breakfast, which allows students to eat in the classroom. Only 26 percent of New York students eligible for free and reduced-price meals participate in a breakfast program, notes a study by the Nutrition Consortium of New York State. Student academic performance is closely tied to breakfast participation, said Linda Bopp, executive director of the consortium; student alertness and attention are improved by eating breakfast. “[Breakfast] helps the teacher, it helps the student,” said Bopp. “It reduces tardiness and absenteeism.” U.S. Rep Paul Tonko, on the floor of the House, said recently “I hope that we can do around the country what Troy City School District has done in my district. In these tough economic times, we need to ensure that more students are taking advantage of school breakfast programs, and breakfast in the classroom has been shown to do just that.” The consortium study found that the stigma students attach to free and reduced-price breakfast would disappear if breakfast were offered free to all students, and more students would participate if it was offered in high traffic areas. Also, the state is missing out on millions of federal dollars because of low breakfast participation numbers. The study estimates an additional $56 million in federal reimbursement would come to New York if 60 percent of free and reduced-price lunch students also participated in the breakfast program.
Two New York City Costco stores will begin accepting SNAP/Food Stamps in June on a trial basis, after the city council and other advocates criticized the warehouse chain for not accepting the benefit. If the program at the Queens and Brooklyn locations is a success, Costco will start accepting SNAP/Food Stamps at all its New York City stores. Other large food retailers – Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart – accept SNAP/Food Stamp EBT cards. A statement from Costco noted that the pilot stores are located in areas with high numbers of SNAP/Food Stamp recipients, and that it currently does not have plans to expand acceptance beyond the New York area. Councilman Eric N. Gioia, whose district includes the Queens Costco, wrote the company last November and asked them to change their SNAP/Food Stamp policy; East Harlem community board members also urged the company to accept the benefit. “By accepting food stamps, Costco will allow more New Yorkers than ever to have access to fresh, healthy foods at wholesale prices – and it will be good for Costco’s bottom line,” Gioia said. Gioia first discovered that Costco did not accept SNAP/Food Stamps when he took the SNAP/Food Stamp challenge in 2007.
Federal economic stimulus money is allowing the Arkansas Department of Human Services to hire 112 temporary family services workers. SNAP/Food Stamp and other assistance applications continue to rise in Arkansas, and most of the workers will determine SNAP/Food Stamp and Medicaid eligibility. The positions will pay $28,000 a year, and are expected to end at the close of 2010. They are funded with $3 million from the recovery act and a matching $3 million from federal Medicaid funds.
An extensive initiative run by Rhode Island’s Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America helps the state’s Department of Human Services increase SNAP/Food Stamp participation numbers as well as access to and retention in the program. “We estimate that there are at least 20,000 more Rhode Islanders who are eligible,” said Feinstein Center director Kathleen Gorman. “With the economy tanking, that’s probably a low estimate. More than 3,700 people enrolled in the program in March 2009 alone.” The outreach program uses student employees and interns who provide information, application assistance and prescreening services to people at pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, group homes, senior high-rises and other locations. To get the word out about SNAP/Food Stamps, the center partners with nearly 300 agencies, 38 partners, and grocery stores. “We go anywhere to help people in need or train people who work directly with low-income populations,” said Gorman. In addition, the center’s hotline (866-306-0270) provides the public with information on SNAP/Food Stamps and applications.
An organization advocating for low-income families, Supportive Parents Information Network (SPIN), is researching San Diego’s poor performance in getting SNAP/Food Stamp applications processed in 30 days, the federally-mandated standard. In 2008, according to SPIN’s numbers, four out of ten applications were not processed within 30 days; the state average was one in ten. Half of the county’s applications were not processed in 30 days in the first quarter of 2009, a rate seven times greater than other California counties. A 2006 FRAC report noted the county had the lowest SNAP/Food Stamp participation rate among 24 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, with only one-third of eligible county residents receiving the benefit; [in an update of the 2006 report published in 2008], FRAC found the county was missing out on more than $100 million in federal funds because of low enrollment – funds that could boost the economy, as every $1 in SNAP/Food Stamps creates approximately $1.80 in stimulus to local economies. “More than 30 days is a long time to wait for help if you are out of money, out of luck and may out of your apartment and out of food,” said Matt Sharp, director of the L.A. office for California Food Policy Advocates. While a three-year plan to increase participation was approved in April by the county Board of Supervisors, the plan does not increase staffing levels. Advocates are concerned that applications will back up if people are encouraged to apply since the county lacks sufficient staff to process the applications. The SPIN researchers found that, as the 30-day noncompliance rates increased, the number of applications withdrawn before they were completed also increased. One researcher heard that county staff pressured eligible applicants to withdraw their applications. Other states are also having noncompliance problems. In Maryland, a lawsuit was filed over the backlog of thousands of SNAP/Food Stamp applications, due to staff shortages caused by budget cuts; similar lawsuits have been filed in New York and Indiana.
Paper SNAP/Food Stamp coupons will no longer be valid after June 17, and state officials are encouraging those who still have the coupons to use them before the deadline. While debit cards have been in use since 2002, some paper coupons are still in circulation. The June 17 expiration date was set in place by the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008.
College students graduating this spring into a tough economy and job market are finding it difficult to get ahead, and are turning to SNAP/Food Stamps for help. Two weeks after graduating with a degree in economics from Oregon State University, Josh Donahue went on SNAP/Food Stamps; he’s currently living with relatives and looking for a job. Across the country, the recession is on the minds of graduating seniors, who are also concerned about their parents. One in five students polled in an AP-mtvU survey said at least one parent lost their job in the past year. Thirty-two percent of students polled said they’re stressed because of financial worries; 22 percent are worried about having enough cash to get through a week at school. Nearly one in five have delayed graduating and are going on to graduate or professional school, believing an undergraduate degree will not be enough to get them a job. The poll of 2,240 undergraduate students (18-24 years old) was conducted by Edison Media Research between April 22 and May 4.
California’s proposed budget eliminates the California Food Assistance Program (CAFP), which helps approximately 22,000 legal immigrants, who don’t qualify for SNAP/Food Stamps, purchase food. The program also helps local merchants by boosting their sales. Legal immigrants will also suffer from other proposed cuts, to the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI), and Medi-Cal for immigrants. “What has been troubling,” notes Vanessa Cajina of the California Immigrant Policy Center in this editorial, “is that the Governor has proposed outright elimination of these programs that were signed into law by another Republican Governor, Pete Wilson, and have been maintained by legislators from both parties.” The cuts hurt everyone, “and are reflected in homeless rates and in emergency room costs,” and target those who “have paid into our social security and Medicare systems, have fought in our wars, have built our homes, grown our food, and cared for our children and seniors.” California’s immigrants must be taken “out of the crosshairs,” and “[w]e all need to share in the solution to our budget crisis,” Cajina concludes.
A recently published Urban Institute study found that 10 to 40 percent of SNAP/Food Stamp and TANF recipients have a disability, and almost one-fifth have a disabled family member. Low-income mothers have lower prevalence on almost all measures. According to the report, the data is important, since the welfare reform of 1996 focused on moving TANF recipients into the work force, but increased numbers of recipients have “significant challenges that can impede work, including disabilities and serious health problems.” States may have difficulties, due to the recession, with meeting TANF participant work requirements, as states find their limited resources must be channeled to other areas.
Many Minnesota residents are struggling with the recession, job layoffs, rising health care prices and state budget cuts, spurring Hunger Solutions Minnesota (HSM) to launch the Minnesota Food Helpline (1-888-711-1151). Designed to sign up eligible residents for SNAP/Food Stamps (called Food Support in the state), the help line will focus on reaching those low-income residents who can receive SNAP/Food Stamps but aren’t aware of the benefit, are reluctant to apply, or have problems with the application process. It’s estimated that 68 percent of eligible Minnesotans receive SNAP/Food Stamps, and 80 percent of eligible seniors have not applied. Callers will be pre-screened for SNAP/Food Stamps using the Bridge to Benefits online tool developed by the Children’s Defense Fund – Minnesota. The helpline will also provide multilingual application assistance and link needy Minnesotans with emergency food providers; the current hours of operation are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with plans to extend to evening and weekend hours. SNAP/Food Stamps not only help those in need, but the state as well. “If enrollment increases, that will add millions in federal assistance to Minnesota,” said HSM executive director Colleen Moriarty. “This will take some pressure off of the weakened state budget.”
New York City is encouraging supermarket development in areas with no grocery stores through zoning and incentives; the Department of City Planning said the city is “working toward announcing details of the plan.” Details from a draft released earlier this spring included easing of requirements that developers find “onerous,” reducing off-street parking requirements, and property and other tax exemptions. The Harlem Food & Fitness Consortium issued a report recently calling for this sort of support to bring stores to the needy, but noted that the community should be involved in planning and decisions. The Consortium, a group of community and advocacy groups, wants to make sure new stores accept SNAP/Food Stamps and WIC, and sell high quality, fresh foods. The coalition also wants to see grocery stores open in public housing projects, and require that new fast-food restaurants go through the same kind of city scrutiny as new liquor stores. The city has been instituting policies to improve the nutrition of residents, including: adding salad bars in some school cafeterias, providing EBT machines at farmers’ markets, encouraging bodegas to stock fresh fruits and vegetables, and increasing the number of street carts serving healthy food on the city’s streets. Governor Paterson also provided $10 million in grocery store loans to encourage stores to open in underserved communities.
Governor Schwarzenegger proposes eliminating welfare-to-work, subsidized health insurance, and other safety net programs, a move that “actually makes us sick,” said Yolo County supervisor Mike McGowan. With the removal of these essential social services, “If you saw a situation in a store where someone is abusing a child, you couldn’t call Child Protective Services,” he noted. California is the only state considering eliminating welfare-to-work, which currently provides monthly CalWORKS support checks to about 500,000 mothers and their one million children. A family of three receives $651 a month; program participants must be U.S. citizens and actively seeking work. As the state unemployment increased to 11 percent over the past year, the number of CalWORKS applications has soared. “No civilized modern state has proposed this as a budget-balancing policy until now,” said Will Lightbourne, director of the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency. “When the safety net is eliminated whole or in part, all of the societal relationships are broken and what were communities become camps.” The proposed budget also slashes home healthcare services, leading hundreds of disabled, many in wheelchairs, to tell the state legislature that the cuts will force many into nursing homes, and premature death. And the governor’s plan to “raid” property taxes from local governments while deferring payments to counties will, according to county supervisors, “change the social fabric of the state.”
USDA estimates that, nationwide, one million children are eligible for reduced-price lunch but don’t participate in the program. The School Nutrition Association reports that half of school systems across the nation have students struggling to pay for school meals. Some schools are allowing children to charge lunch, while others provide an alternate meal to the lunch being served. Many of these children who are short on money are the ones paying for reduced-price meals. In the Washington, D.C. metro area, more children arrive at school unfed, a measurement of the nation’s recession. McNair Elementary School in Herndon, Va. has seen double the number of children requiring breakfast – 200 each morning, up from 100 in September. And more children are becoming eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Virginia’s Prince William County saw its numbers increase from 30 to 33 percent, and Maryland’s Montgomery County increased from 26 to 28 percent. In Clark County, Nev. (where Las Vegas is located), the number rose from 38 to 46 percent in 1.5 years.
Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell spoke with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, joining other elected officials in the state in urging the department to continue Philadelphia’s 17-year-old school meals program. Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services pointed out that changing to a paperwork system would keep “tens of thousands” of children from accessing school meals, the only meals each day for many of these children.
Columbus Elementary School in Medford, Mass. has offered free breakfast to all students over the past few months, and school officials are seeing the difference. “The students have been so much better behaved that teachers are saying we need to keep it,” said School Lunch Director Jeanne Irwin. “[B]ecause the kids have been having breakfast as…a classroom family, they seem to take on an energy that carries throughout the day.” Columbus Principal Joan Yeager noted improved attendance and punctuality among students, and fewer school nurse trips. About 50 percent of the school’s students are enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program, which makes it possible for the school to offer free breakfast. “We couldn’t do this at any other school because of the amount of free and reduced lunch,” said Irwin. Project Bread is working to get more schools in Massachusetts to include breakfast, and has awarded 119 School Breakfast Excellence Awards as incentives to make the meal part of the school day.