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.
At the final USDA listening session in preparation for the 2009 Child Nutrition and WIC Program Reauthorization, FRAC President Jim Weill outlined three overall steps that will improve child nutrition program access, coordination, and disease prevention. “Congress should expand, update and improve these programs because they can do so much more good and do so cost-effectively,” noted Weill at the meeting held in Chicago, Ill. The steps FRAC outlined include: expanding access to nutritious food for children in early childhood settings, after school and during the summer; using the child nutrition programs to better support healthy eating habits to prevent obesity and other nutrition-related diseases; more broadly accessible and healthier school nutrition which is essential to nutrition, to health, to school improvement and to students’ educational success; and less red tape and better co-ordination to let more hungry and needy children have access to the programs which provide them with the nutritious food they need. The comments are available at http://frac.org/pdf/jwstatement_2009cnr_listensessionsep09.pdf (pdf).
2. Louisiana Moves More Through Disaster Food Stamp Process; Texas Could Be Next Up for Benefits
Responding to Tuesday's long lines, Louisiana Department of Social Services moved crowds of disaster food stamps applicants out of the heat and sunlight and into air conditioning. The Department of Social Services trained 320 additional staffers and deployed them to high volume sites. By Wednesday, the high volume sites were remaining open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and applicants at non-air-conditioned sites were supplied with tents for shade, water, folding chairs and fans. One applicant noted "This is quite pleasant…not what I expected. I haven't even been here 30 minutes and I'm already at the front of the line.” One site processed 1,500 applicants in two hours. USDA agreed to Louisiana's request and extended the application time period to September 23. Since the program began on September 9, 131,270 applications have been processed, with $13 million in benefits loaded onto 26,837 EBT cards by the end of the week. Hurricane Ike swept through the region following Gustav, bringing much damaging to Texas while causing additional evacuation in Louisiana. The President said he would travel to Texas and promised delivery of food and water to that region affected by Ike. FRAC will continue to update Disaster Food Stamp and nutrition relief news during the 2008 hurricane season at http://frac.org/html/disaster/disaster_index.htm
3. State and National Officials Call for New Federal Poverty Measure
The current federal poverty measure, which only “counts cash as income,” needs to be changed to reflect the current hardships millions of Americans are facing and the effectiveness of programs designed to help low-income households, say lawmakers and officials from cities. Food stamp aid, housing subsidies and tax credits aren’t included in poverty measures, giving what many believe is an unrealistic picture of exactly who is poor in America. Officials in New York have developed their own poverty measures, and are offering technical assistance to other cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, interested in adopting their own measure. New York’s new poverty model increases the poverty rate to from 19 to 23 percent, as government aid is counted; while fewer people in the city are classified as “extremely poor,” senior citizen poverty numbers increased due to their out-of-pocket medical expenses. Congressional lawmakers don’t expect a change in federal policy this year, even with pressure from cities, but legislation could pass next year. The current federal poverty measure has been unchanged since the sixties.
4. Hurricanes Strike Low-Income Households More Severely
With “staggering numbers” of low-income households, Central Louisiana has seen a disproportionate amount of hardship in the wake of recent hurricanes according to Town Talk’s executive editor Paul Carty. The Rapides Parish poverty rate is 21.2 percent, meaning one in five residents of the parish lives in poverty according to the 2000 U.S. Census and 2005 American Community Survey. Storm damage hits the working poor residents of this area worse because their lives are a daily struggle to maintain the basics, like food, medicine, and shelter. Hurricanes turn their everyday “special challenge” to “a heavy cross to bear.” “No one should have to bear that alone,” writes Carty, “not…in the wealthiest and most generous nation in the world.”
Customers at Benson’s Grocery, situated on Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs, are dealing with the current economic downturn by purchasing 15 to 20 percent less on trips to the store, buying more basics (bread, milk, meat), and paying in significant numbers with food stamps. According to Allen DeBono, one of the store’s owners, “I’ve seen a 300 percent increase in the number of people buying their food with food stamps in the past three to four months.” Now, 60 percent of sales are paid for with food stamps. The store used to give credit, but has tightened up and now only allows customers to buy $30 on credit, instead of $100. Plus, the store has stopped taking personal checks. Customers are hurting from a huge drop in construction and other jobs in the area. Many who are financially able are leaving to find work elsewhere.
6. More Vermonters Will Be Eligible for Food Stamps
Vermont plans to raise the household income limit for food stamp eligibility from 130 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent. The change, which will start in January 2009, means the benefit could go to an extra 30,000 households and bring an additional $12 million to the state’s economy through food sales. Rising food and fuel prices are keeping residents struggling to pay bills and put food on the table, prompting the move. Governor Jim Douglas (R) sees the increase in households as “…a very logical step. The federal government allows us to…expand the program. And although we’ll have to pay a little extra in state dollars to administer it, the benefits actually come from federal funds.” He also noted that food stamps will help families get through “a tough winter.”
7. Michigan’s Poor Need Food Stamp Boost in Next Stimulus Package
Citing economists that say helping those most in need is the best way to help the ailing economy, this op-ed calls on Congress to help needy families in Michigan (as well as across the country) through an increase in food assistance, extra jobless benefits to workers in hard-hit states, and extra financial assistance to households for heat this winter. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke believes in the effectiveness of assistance to needy families as an economic stimulus tool. “If you’re somebody who lives paycheck to paycheck, you’re more likely to spend that extra dollar,” he stated earlier this year. Michigan is desperate for the help. Recent Census Bureau statistics showed a 14 percent jump in the state’s poverty rate in 2007; more Michigan residents live in poverty now than in the early 1980s and early 1990s, with one in five children, or 19 percent, living in poverty. Food pantries across the state report less to give out despite higher demands, as downsized workers struggle to find work and pay for food, utilities and medical care. Currently, 1.3 million people – a record – receive food assistance in Michigan, with 25,000 families across Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties (61,700 poor people, 13,200 poor children) receiving food stamps.
Low-income families will find their benefits from a recent minimum-wage increase will be cancelled out by increased child care costs, as the state responds to budget problems by cuts to subsidized child care which will affect 15,000 middle- and low-income families. The change lowers the income eligibility cap for the program to 150 percent of the federal poverty level; the former cap was 200 percent. For one working mother, this means she will have to spend $30 to $40 a week more for child care. Families were already dealing with one change that started in August, when the discount to families with more than one child in the program was eliminated. Coming at the worst time, in the midst of the economic crisis, the budget reduction contradicts the state’s initiative to improve the workforce, said Ron Gilbert, senior policy analyst for Arise Citizen’s Policy Project. He commented “We spent $1 billion last year on industrial recruitment, yet the state appears unwilling to spend $5 million to help parents stay in the workforce.” A coming change in the Food Stamp Program will help families offset some of their increased expenses, according to Department of Human Resources spokesman Barry Spear. Starting October 1, the state will eliminate the limit on how much families can deduct for child care expenses when applying for food stamps. Officials say a drop in federal funding for the child care program, which gets two-thirds of its money from the government, contributed to the budget cuts.
Governor Rod Blagojevich plans to cut 73 agency jobs that handle food stamps and addiction programs, part of a round of job cuts to the Department of Children and Family Services and Department of Human Services that will leave 379 without work on November 30. Henry Bayer, director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union Council 31 (the worker’s union), warned “The governor’s actions will put abused and neglected children at greater risk and reduce access to Medicaid and food stamps.” Department of Human Services (DHS) spokesman Tom Green maintains that the job cuts are spread among a number of offices, and with 14,000 employees, DHS will be able to function without interrupting services. Bayer, however, countered that with fewer people handling the caseloads, people needing services will experience delays in assistance.
Americorps member and blogger Shanda encouraged her family to take the food stamp challenge for the week of September 7 to 13. Shanda writes that it probably won’t be that much different than how they live, as food prices have forced the family to “almost eat on a ‘food stamp’ budget now. Her motivation to go back and visit the strugglesof putting food on the table with a food stamp budget, if only for a week, stems from her work with the poor – she wants to “become more intimately aware of how life works” for her clients. Shanda has been on food stamps in the past, and writes of the conflicting emotions she experienced while receiving the benefit: “As a single mom, I was so thankful to have food stamps, while at the same time ashamed that I needed them.” Using the EBT card didn’t remove the stigma, as she was “so embarrassed to pull out my Lone Star card” at the grocery store, “especially if there was a long line behind me.” She notes that she has grown to accept that she needs some federal assistance. While currently not on food stamps, her children receive reduced-price lunch at school and are signed up for insurance through the CHIP program.
In Washington state’s Edmonds School District, cafeteria workers had been told to replace hot lunches with cold cheese sandwiches for children owing money to the school for unpaid lunch fees. Schools had permitted children to “charge” lunches, but that policy gained the district $207,763 in unpaid lunch fees last year. Some cafeteria workers were upset over the change, and refused to replace a child’s entire meal, letting them keep milk and fruit on their tray, or paid for children’s meals themselves. District spokeswoman Debbie Jakala said the schools were conflicted over the policy, and said “Without question, this is a difficult thing to implement – and we’re trying to strike a very solid balance between being fiscally responsible and making sure kids get fed.” The school district temporarily suspended the policy on Thursday, after hearing complaints from cafeteria staff, parents and the community; a public hearing on the school meal deficit is planned for this week. Many of the children who owe money are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, but the schools have had difficulty getting parents to fill out the application forms. There are many households that don’t meet the income requirements for free and reduced-price lunch, but still struggle financially, according to Crystal Fitzsimons, FRAC’s director of school and out-of-school time programs. “When you think of rent and transportation costs and food-at-home cost and child-care costs – it’s very difficult for families to break even,” said Fitzsimons.