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.
On July 31, the Senate confirmed Kevin Concannon for the USDA post of Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services; he was sworn into office on August 4. As undersecretary, Concannon will oversee two-thirds of USDA’s budget, including SNAP/Food Stamps and school meal programs. Concannon ran the Iowa Department of Human Services from 2003 to 2008.
Although cities and towns are struggling with tight budgets, they can raise awareness among needy residents about the assistance that federal food programs, such as the SNAP/Food Stamp Program, can provide to families facing reduced incomes, unemployment, and food insecurity. These outreach items can be accomplished at little to no cost, and the federal government has outreach grants that can provide financial support. Some ideas noted in this article include:
“partnering with school districts to send informational materials home with school lunch menus or newsletters;
Federal food programs not only help the people that apply, but they also bring federal dollars into communities. For every $1 in SNAP/Food Stamp dollars spent on groceries, nearly twice that amount in local economic activity is created. SNAP/Food Stamps can provide help to more people, a fact noted by the Food Research and Action Center, which states that only one in three who are eligible for the benefit actually sign up – even though participation rates are currently setting records across the country.
Cities that have taken steps to help connect more people to federal food programs include:
San Francisco – recently launched online SNAP/Food Stamp application capabilities, using a grant from USDA;
A lawsuit brought by the Texas Legal Services Center and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice aims at helping SNAP/Food Stamp applicants in the state to actually receive benefits. More than half of new applications have been waiting past the 30-day processing deadline mandated by law; the lawsuit was filed on behalf of Irving residents Stacy Howard and Linda Thornberg, as well as all needy state residents requesting SNAP/Food Stamp benefits. Howard and Thornberg still have not been interviewed for the benefit, although they applied more than two months ago. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission said that the recession and Hurricane Ike are responsible for the delays, and that applicants for SNAP/Food Stamps, along with Medicaid and cash assistance, have overwhelmed state workers who process the applications. Bruce Bower, deputy director of the Texas Legal Services Center, cites 60,000 households a month that are applying for the food aid but not receiving prompt word on whether or not they qualify. Celia Hagert, of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said that these delays have been happening for more than three years, and that the recession cannot be blamed.
Advocates say that Colorado’s 26-page SNAP/Food Stamp application prevents senior citizens and the disabled from applying for the benefit. “A one- or two-page (food stamp) application for the elderly is really a significant step in the right direction,” said Julie Paradis, administrator for USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. Only 54 percent of Colorado’s eligible SNAP/Food Stamp recipients participate in the program, one of the lowest rates in the country. The state has been criticized for delays SNAP/Food Stamp recipients experience in getting their benefits, stemming from problems with the computer system that processes applications. The recession has also played a part, overwhelming workers with people seeking assistance. Colorado ranks 52nd, behind Guam, in SNAP/Food Stamp application timeliness; 24 percent of applications were processed late in June. Officials at the Colorado Department of Human Services say they are in the “very preliminary” discussion phase of making the application process simpler.
Taylor County in Texas has seen an 11 percent increase in SNAP/Food Stamp participation compared to August 2008; the state also experienced an 11 percent increase. In the county, 15,331 people are receiving the benefit. In addition, more “non-grocery” stores in the area are accepting SNAP/Food Stamps, helping more people access food who do not have a grocery store nearby. At a Family Dollar store in the county, 35 percent of sales are from groceries, and one in four dollars spent are SNAP/Food Stamp benefits, according to Sylvia Cortez, store manager. Sam’s Club stores in the area are also beginning to accept EBT cards.
6. SNAP/Food Stamps Accepted at More Stores across the Country
SNAP/Food Stamps helped Family Dollar report success during the recession in its recent third-quarter earnings report, and more stores across the country are accepting EBT cards as record numbers of people receive SNAP/Food Stamps. Target recently extended acceptance of EBT cards at all 1,700 stores. Costco began testing EBT card technology at six New York City stores, in response to more and more customers asking the store to accept the cards. “We’ll ultimately need to expand the program to our other stores, so right now, we’re working out any bugs in the system,” said Joe Portera, executive vice president and COO of Costco’s Eastern and Canadian divisions. In April, BJ’s Wholesale Club began accepting EBT cards at all of its stores, and more than half of 7-Eleven stores nationwide now accept SNAP/Food Stamps. In addition, CVS spokeswoman Erin Pensa noted that 5,000 of 7,000 CVS stores now accept EBT cards, and more stores are being added.
7. USDA Grant Will Help Ohio Seniors Access SNAP/Food Stamps
Five Richland County, Ohio grocery stores will offer seniors assistance in signing up for SNAP/Food Stamps through a USDA grant of $73,350. The District 5 Area Agency on Aging in Mansfield was awarded the two-year USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program SNAP Outreach Grant. It will partner with Richland County Job and Family Services to conduct SNAP/Food Stamp outreach at the stores, using volunteers to pre-screen elderly shoppers and help eligible seniors sign up for the benefit.
Compared to the number of Utah resident receiving SNAP/Food Stamps, the number receiving TANF cash assistance is “tiny,” according to this article. In June, 83,385 Utah households received SNAP/Food Stamps, while in May, 6,797 households received TANF assistance. Monthly income limits account for part of the disparity. A family of three can earn up to $1,907 a month and receive SNAP/Food Stamps; that same family can make no more than $1,050 a month in order to qualify for TANF. State officials plan to increase the TANF eligibility limit in order to help more people struggling with the recession qualify for the cash assistance. Still, many residents aren’t applying for assistance because of the stigma involved.
According to a recent Food Research and Action Center report, one out of six children who received free and reduced-price lunch also received free summer meals in 2008, leaving 13.8 million children hungry over the summer and possibly falling behind in school. “It does not have to be this way,” notes this op-ed by Melissa Boteach, senior policy associate and poverty campaign coordinator at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and Hadar Susskind JCPA’s vice president and Washington director. President Obama’s February 2009 budget requested $1 billion per year in new funding for child nutrition programs – a move supporting his campaign goal of ending child hunger by 2015. The money could be used for expanding access to subsidized school meals as well as summer and afterschool meal programs. However, the budget Congress passed in May guaranteed no new money for child nutrition programs. These programs are “incredibly successful” in the areas they are available, and not only feed hungry children, but provide learning and recreation activities. As Congress reviews the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization this year, “it is our obligation to ensure that this legislation represents a down payment on President Obama’s urgent goal of ending child hunger by 2015.”
10. Iowa Summer Food Program Recording Record Participation
An additional 14 Iowa school districts, plus five more nonprofit organizations, are offering children free summer meals this year, which has helped increase participation. Since 2002, the number of Iowa children receiving the meals has increased 232 percent. The meals do more than feed hungry children. “I think that actually kids are generally mentally and physically more healthy and more ready to come back to school in the fall,” noted Iowa Department of Education consultant Rod Bakken. This year, 210 different sites served summer meals in Iowa, involving eighty-six schools and nonprofit groups.
Officials in a number of Arkansas school districts want more eligible families to sign their children up for free and reduced-price lunch since the program benefits both students and schools. “The higher the free and reduced percentage,” said Farmington Public Schools child nutrition director Adam Simmons, “the more funds the schools are eligible for. It also plays into a lot of grants, both private and public.” Private grantmaking organizations pay attention to the percentage of free and reduced-price meal numbers when making selections for grants. Still, parents can be unwilling to fill out the application forms. “I think there can be a stigma,” said Simmons. “I think sometimes people are a little proud to do it.” But, he noted that “[w]e pay taxes for this.”
During the 2009-2010 school year, 196 Maryland schools will participate in the Maryland Meals for Achievement program. Funded by $2.8 million from the state, the program helps schools serve breakfast in the classroom; breakfast is free to all students regardless of family income. “Students who participate in the in-classroom breakfast program have improved concentration, fewer health issues, behave better in class and score higher on standardized tests,” said Nancy Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. Schools operating the program have an average daily breakfast participation of 74 percent.
Former Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Parks, who instituted one of the first school breakfast programs in the nation, died August 1, 2009. Parks was one of few black students to be admitted to a major university, and was in Purdue University’s engineering school when he was drafted in 1942. Although eligible at the time for deferment, he said he was called to fight. After the war, Parks advocated for equality and improvement in Boston’s public schools. The school breakfast program begun under his watch is still in effect today. Officials in Boston continue to focus on childhood hunger; a recent summit in the city brought together more than 100 government, food, and health officials from the Northeast to find ways to feed hungry children and improve their nutrition.
14. Oklahoma WIC Program Introduces New Food Package
WIC agencies across the country are required to update the food packages to align with the 2005 dietary guidelines for American and infant feeding guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics by October 1, but some states are making the switch sooner. Oklahoma changed to the new food package at the end of July. “The WIC food package has really never changed much since it was implemented many, many years ago,” said Terry Bryce, the state’s program director. “Obviously now, we recognize the importance of fruits and vegetables in your diet along with whole-grain products. This has been overdue.” WIC serves an average of 102,053 people each month in Oklahoma; tribal programs serve an average of 27,283 each month.
The annual KidsCount report on children’s health, issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, noted in its most recent report that national efforts to track and analyze child poverty trends “fall far short of what is possible, what is needed, and what is demanded.” The government should, according to the special report on the “data deficit,” overhaul its poverty-measurement formula, strengthen efforts to fully count children and minorities in the upcoming 2010 census, and better track disadvantaged families by improving the national vital statistics system. “Ensuring that policy makers and managers have the information they need to make critically important decisions can deliver an immense payoff in reduced waste and improved results for children,” said Patrick McCarthy, the Casey Foundation’s senior vice president. He also said government officials should “resist the temptation” to cut data collection and analysis spending during the recession. The main KidsCount report found that the rates of low-birthweight babies, children living with jobless or unemployed parents, children in poverty, and children in single-parent families have worsened since 2000. The recession was not reflected in the data, as it was collected before 2007. While the infant mortality rate, child death rate, teen death rate, high school dropout rate and rate of teens not in school and not working have improved, Casey officials expect economic indicators in next year’s report to be worse due to the economic meltdown.
The AFL-CIO Executive Council said that the economy and America’s working families are in desperate need of another economic stimulus package, one that focuses “like a laser beam on job creation.” Since the recession began in 2007, 6.5 million jobs have disappeared – including 1.9 million manufacturing and 1.3 million construction jobs. Blue collar unemployment currently stands at 14.7 percent. It’s expected that unemployment will rise to 10 percent this year and stay high during 2010. At 10 percent unemployment, about 18 percent of the workforce is underemployed or without a job in any given month. The rate would mean 16-18 percent unemployment for Hispanics and African-Americans. Current projections suggest that one-third of the workforce could be unemployed or underemployed. If unemployment continues to grow, child poverty could reach 27 percent; 50 percent for African-American children. For those with jobs, wages are stagnant, and many face forced furloughs. According to the AFL-CIO, the next recovery plan should include an extension of unemployment benefits by seven weeks or more, and an increase in SNAP/Food Stamp spending and local and state government aid. Currently, people who are unemployed average 24.5 weeks without a job – a record number. As it stands now, it will take years for employment to reach the pre-recession levels of 2007.
Tennessee state officials have turned to a “New Deal” model in order to get more residents back into the workforce, without waiting for big construction projects and the trickle-down from tax cuts. In Perry County, 300 new jobs were created using welfare money supplied through the economic stimulus act; the state expects to use $3 million to $5 million of its $5 billion TANF stimulus share to pay for these new jobs. “If I could have done a W.P.A. out there, I would have done a W.P.A. out there,” said Gov. Phil Bredesen. W.P.A. stands for the Works Progress Administration, through which the government helped provide jobs for millions during the Great Depression. In Perry County, people are going to work for the Department of Transportation and local food establishments – two-thirds of the jobs are in private-sector businesses. Young people are working too, at 150 jobs that have been created for them.
People earning low and middle-incomes are using credit cards as their safety net, paying for basic living expenses, medical bills, and other items with their cards and accruing more debt. According to a report released in July by the New York-based nonprofit research and advocacy group Demos, more than one-third of households said they used their credit cards for rent and mortgage payments, groceries, and utilities. For these households, the average credit card debt increased 3 percent from $9,536 to $9,827 in three years, and 42 percent of survey respondents said they had more debt than three years ago. For people aged 65 and older, credit card debt increased 26 percent, from $8,138 in 2005 to $10,235 in 2008, with medical costs being the main reason for the jump. Even before the recession, households earning $50,000 a year were using credit cards as a safety net. Low and middle income earners are also more likely to be charged higher credit card rates – a quarter surveyed said they paid at least 20 percent interest on their credit card balances; a third of black and Hispanic households reported they were paying that percentage rate.
19. Many Tipped Workers Still Making Same Low Wage
For the past 18 years – since 1966 - the federal wage for tipped workers has been $2.13, even though the federal minimum wage has risen to $7.25 an hour. Nearly 146,000 restaurant, hotel, car wash and nail salon employees make this low wage and are paid mainly by customer tips. New Jersey and 17 other states continue to pay tipped workers the $2.13 wage, set by Congress as a fixed percentage of the full minimum wage. A provision to link the two rates was dropped in 1996. Still, 32 states and D.C. have raised the rate; in 2010, 22 of these states will raise the amount to nearly 60 percent of the minimum wage. Most tipped workers make slightly above the full minimum wage, and if they don’t, their employers must make up the difference. A recent report titled “Restoring the Minimum Wage for America’s Tipped Workers” issued by the National Employment Law Project calls for an increase in the $2.13 wage, and improved protection against tip stealing by employers and managers.
Food banks that have had to turn people away or give out less food in shopping bags as they struggle with the recession and the demand from more and more unemployed people received a boost in the recent economic stimulus act. The stimulus act provided $100 million to food banks – which usually get $250 million a year in federal funding – and is helping them buy additional food to hand out at soup kitchens and food pantries. Demand has increased during the recession; according to GAP Food Bank director Pari Blackman, the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. organization sees 350 to 400 families line up at the warehouse each week. A year ago, 240 families a week sought the organization’s assistance.
Since 2007, New York City has paid for 550 homeless families to leave the city for places where they have relatives to take them in, keeping them out of the city’s shelter system, where it costs $36,000 a year to house a family. These families include lifelong New Yorkers who have fallen on hard times, or new arrivals to the U.S. who find living in the city, the language, and the job market difficult. At the intake centers, social workers ask families about housing options in other places. If the family has a relative that is willing to take them in, the city will arrange for a bus, train, or plane to get them there, although sometimes waiting a few days to avoid last-minute ticket prices. Department of Homeless Services employees plan international travel, and a local travel agency handles one-way tickets within the U.S. The program costs $500,000 a year, and has paid for visas, worked with consulates, and provided letters and passports for “anyone who comes through our door,” said Vida Chavez-Downes, director of a city office that helps to relocate families. However, the program doesn’t address the problems that brought families to the city, said Arnold S. Cohen, president and CEO of Partnership for the Homeless. “What we’re doing is passing the problem of homelessness to another city,” he noted. “We’re taking people from a shelter bed here to the living room couch of another family. Essentially, this family is still homeless.” Families have the choice of rejecting the offer, though, and staying in one of the city’s shelters.