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. Previous editions of the Digest are available on FRAC’s website.
Issue #6, February 15, 2012
1. SNAP/Food Stamp Participation Hits Record Levels, but Greatest Increase Occurred During Previous Administration
(NPR, February 8, 2012; FRAC, February 10, 2012)
Nearly 46.3 million Americans received SNAP/Food Stamps in November 2011, another record month. Food stamp participation has risen steadily in recent years, with 14.2 million people starting to receive the benefit during the Obama Administration and a half-million more people being added to the program during the Bush Administration. About two in five recipients live in a household with someone who is employed. “It’s not just the people who’ve been unemployed, or who’ve been unemployed and for a year or two, it’s people who are working at minimum wage and have one or two kids, it’s parents who can only get part-time work,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. More than three-quarters of Americans – “of all political stripes” – support SNAP/Food Stamps, according to a recent national survey cited by Weill. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana says attacking the program “is blaming the victim, and it's making a mockery of some of the most important social safety net programs in the country.”
2. FRAC Report Finds Houston, Tx. Among Top Districts in School Breakfast Participation
(Fox 26, January 31, 2012)
The Houston Independent School District (HISD) in Texas ranks third in the U.S. for school breakfast participation, according to FRAC’s School Breakfast in the Big Cities report. Houston joined Detroit, Mich. and Newark, N.J. as the only areas with 70 percent or higher school breakfast participation during the 2010 school year. HISD noticed that school breakfast has not only alleviated student hunger, but reduced absenteeism, tardiness and nurses’ office visits. The district ties its success to the fact that all of its elementary and middle schools offer breakfast in the classroom. “The Food Services team did an outstanding job of mobilizing resources to make this possible for our students,” said Brian Giles, HISD’s senior food services administrator.
3. Florida SNAP/Food Stamp Food Restriction Proposal Unwieldy for Grocers
(NPR, February 7, 2012)
Florida’s proposal to restrict the kinds of food SNAP/Food Stamp recipients would be able to purchase – banning them from buying soda and other unhealthy foods – is receiving criticism from both anti-poverty advocates and the food retail industry. “With tens of thousands of items in stores, it’s extremely hard for a grocer to separate out what’s covered by the program and not covered under these rules,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. The Florida bill is sponsored by Florida state Sen. Ronda Storms. USDA denied a request from New York to limit food purchases for SNAP/Food Stamp participants, and Minnesota attempted to restrict SNAP/Food Stamp purchases as well, and failed.
4. Kansas Governor to Review SNAP/Food Stamp Policy Limiting Immigrant Benefits
(Kansas City Star, January 25, 2012)
Kansas enacted a policy on October 1, 2011 that eliminates SNAP/Food Stamp benefits for low-income, U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrant parents. Now Governor Sam Brownback is reviewing the policy, after more than 1,000 households lost benefits due to the policy. While U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants are eligible for SNAP/Food Stamps, their parents are not. The new policy mandates that the incomes of each household member be considered in the SNAP/Food Stamp approval process. Before, a portion of a household’s income was considered if one or more members did not provide proof of citizenship in applying for benefits. “I’m not sure he really knew about this policy and what was happening to the children,” said Sister Therese Bangert of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. “I’m confident that he’s going to seriously look at this, and those children who are hungry because of this policy will be hungry no more.” Several community leaders were outraged over the new policy, according to Kansas Action for Children. “Ultimately, we are interested in seeing any policy changes that allow children to receive the basic nutrition that will help them develop into young healthy children and adults,” said April Holman, the organization’s director of policy and research.
5. New Jersey County Struggles with Thousands of Backlogged SNAP/Food Stamp Applications
(Asbury Park Press, February 1, 2012)
New Jersey’s Monmouth County is struggling to clear a backlog of 2,858 SNAP/Food Stamp applications – a combination of new assistance seekers and annual reviews for those already in the program. The county is dealing with this three-month backlog by training new application processors and hiring clerical workers to assist the processors. Monmouth County currently has more than 17,000 active SNAP/Food Stamp cases, up from 7,000 cases in 2007. Over that time period, the county experienced staffing cuts of 11 percent. “It’s definitely the economy,” said John P. Curley, director of the county Board of Freeholders and liaison to the county Department of Human Services. “This has just skyrocketed, people from all walks of life.”
6. Study Finds San Diego SNAP/Food Stamp Phone Network Drops Hundreds of Thousands of Calls Each Month
(San Diego Union-Tribune, February 7, 2012)
The San Diego phone network designed to help people apply for SNAP/Food Stamps and other assistance lets more than 350,000 calls go unanswered each month, and those who get through face average wait times of more than 30 minutes, according to an internal county report. Because the county Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) has not hired enough workers or installed enough phone lines, five out of every six calls don’t get answered. County employees answer 40 percent of the 68,000 calls that do get picked up, with 21 percent of calls helped through the automated system and 15 percent answered by a contractor. “Technology solutions are insufficient for the size of (HHSA) and not proactively anticipating the needs of the organization,” said the study. To improve the system, the county plans to add staff, enhance training for current workers, and add 50 phone lines. HHSA director Nick Macchione said he is committed to implementing the study’s recommendations, noting that HHSA has already made progress. Many of the recommendations were similar to those previously made by community nonprofit groups which help poor families navigate the benefits system. “It’s nice to see (the report) in some ways, in that it does indeed validate what we’re saying” said William Oswald of the Caring Council, who was among a group of advocates in 2009 urging supervisors to improve the system. “The issue is when they get embarrassed by how bad things are, will they…fix it?” San Diego County ranked last among 22 urban areas with 40 percent of eligible people enrolled in SNAP/Food Stamps, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
7. Half a Dozen States Consider Legislation Limiting SNAP/Food Stamp Recipient Food Choice
(Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2012)
Florida state Sen. Ronda Storms is currently sponsoring a bill to ban SNAP/Food Stamp recipients from buying soda, candy or snacks with their benefits, which the senator considers unhealthful. “If this seems reasonable to you, there is a very good chance that you’re not a single mom on welfare,” notes this editorial. The idea that poor people “have any more time to cook from scratch than other Americans who rely on prepared supermarket ‘junk’ food is clearly absurd, and infantilizing them by restricting their choices in this way is demeaning.” New York City’s 2010 proposal to ban SNAP/Food Stamp funds from being spent on sugary soft drinks was also unrealistic, since “some fruit juices that would have been allowed under [Mayor] Bloomberg’s plan are as nutritionally empty as colas, and advice from health experts about what Americans should be eating is subject to frequent shifts.” Giving Americans proper nutritional information is the best way to help people make healthy food choices. “But for the government to reach into their supermarket carts is downright – dare we say it? – socialistic.”
8. AARP in Georgia Helping Seniors Apply for SNAP/Food Stamps
(Gainesville Times, February 14, 2012)
Since September 2011, the AARP Foundation has been helping seniors in Georgia sign up for food stamps, and has helped 800 receive the benefit. AARP Georgia is continuing the assistance in February with a number of SNAP/Food Stamp application drives. “For people who are really struggling, they find themselves in a position where they are choosing either to pay for a prescription or food…to pay for utilities or food,” said Ed Van Herik of AARP. However, some eligible seniors don’t apply for SNAP/Food Stamps, because they’ve been independent for so long that they feel they don’t really need the help, or feel there’s a stigma attached to receiving SNAP/Food Stamps. In Georgia, nearly two-thirds of eligible seniors are missing out, although the program has done much to reduce the stigma. “The system is designed so no one knows if you receive this kind of assistance,” said Herik, speaking about the EBT cards recipients receive their benefits on, and use at a grocery store like a debit card.
9. California Strives to Increase SNAP/Food Stamp Participation
(Sacramento News & Review, January 26, 2012)
“Food stamps are the one part of the social safety net that, for those enrolled, still works really well,” states this article, funded by a grant from the Sierra Health Foundation which supports independent reporting on California food access, and by the Open Society Foundation. “[F]or all the ‘food insecurity’ in California, actual hunger would be far more extensive without government programs in place to tackle the problem; or were those programs replaced by block grants, as an increasing number of Republican politicians are advocating.” Nutrition programs like food stamps garner wide popular support. According to polling data from the Food Research and Action Center, close to 90 percent of those surveyed believe “those who are unable to earn enough money for food should be helped by others[.]” While 46 million Americans currently receive SNAP/Food Stamps (four years after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression), more than half – 4 million - of eligible Californians don’t participate in the program, relying on local charities, churches and food pantries. Some miss meals altogether. State legislation is making it easier for people to apply and stay enrolled in SNAP/Food Stamps, by decreasing the quarterly re-application mandate to twice a year, and allowing for phone interviews and online applications. The state is planning to automatically enroll Medicaid participants in SNAP/Food Stamps. A bill likely to pass soon would help seniors enrolling in Social Security also enroll in SNAP/Food Stamps.
10. Ads in Minnesota Encourage Needy to Apply for SNAP/Food Stamps
(MPR News, February 3, 2012)
Ads targeting the newly unemployed in Minnesota will encourage these residents to apply for SNAP/Food Stamps. Only 65 percent of eligible Minnesotans currently receive SNAP/Food Stamps, and the ads on buses, in retail outlets and doctor’s offices aim to increase that number. Seniors are also targeted in the campaign, which strives to assure them that there’s no stigma attached to accepting the assistance. “Part of our message has been, ‘You worked hard all your life. And if you take advantage of this opportunity and get help with your nutrition, your medication is going to work better, you’ll probably be able to stay in your home longer, your family won’t worry as much,” said Colleen Moriarty, who heads up Hunger Solutions [Minnesota]. “It could make a big difference.” Funding for the campaign comes from the General Mills Foundation.
11. Economically Strapped Journalist Applies for SNAP/Food Stamps
(Salon.com, January 27, 2012)
Christopher D. Cook, a self-employed writer making about $750-800 a month, applied for SNAP/Food Stamps, in spite of being a mid-career journalist. “I call myself frayed white collar – part of the privileged poor,” he writes in this article. “I have a college degree, a career, and an array of middle-class, working-class, and more economically privileged friends; together we are a fairly good representation of the 97 percent, or maybe the 95 percent. And most of us are hard-pressed – even my teacher friends, making about $60,000 a year are perpetually flat-lined economically, eking across each month’s finish line thanks to credit cards.” Growing up, his single mother received SNAP/Food Stamps. “We muddled through with her poverty wages, food stamp booklets, and sometimes, slightly bruised but totally edible produce the store couldn’t sell.” Cook is committed to spreading the word about the program. “Despite my personal response to being on the dole, the fact is, these benefits keep people alive. They keep people eating, and they keep others working, by essentially subsidizing the market for food retail.” Being on SNAP/Food Stamps – or expanding the program – “is about as far from a crime as one can get.”
12. SNAP/Food Stamps Kept Nearly 15 Percent of Americans from Hunger
(Kansas City Infozine, February 4, 2012)
“Food stamps kept 14.5 percent of Americans from going hungry,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) at a recent news conference. “Let us not tamper with it, as it is in fact an economic safety net.” SNAP/Food Stamps also provide grocery stores with more customers who pay more money, noted Donna Cooper, an economics expert with the Center for American Progress, adding that those who would consider reducing SNAP/Food Stamp spending don’t realize the move would hurt entire communities. “I spent a weekend without food while my son ate,” said Tara Marks, co-director of Just Harvest, who spoke about her experience using SNAP/Food Stamps while earning her college degree. “I’m here to make sure that more families can access food stamps.”
13. Number of Food Insecure New Yorkers with College Degrees Increases
(New York University News, January 25, 2012)
According to a report by the Food Bank for New York City, with the help of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, the percentage of food-insecure New Yorkers with college degrees increased 6 percent in 2011, and the percentage of food-insecure residents with graduate or professional degrees increased 11 percent. “You expect that when you get out of college, you’ll get a job that [will] make more than enough to survive,” said Fordham University graduate Christy de la Cruz. “But the real wake-up call comes when you find out that it’s not enough.” The food bank also found that 35 percent of New York City residents – 3 million people – had difficulty in 2011 affording food at some point. The sluggish economy, increased college education costs, difficulty in enrolling in SNAP/Food Stamps, and the program’s stigma, are all possible reasons for the increases, said Nicolas Freudenberg, a public policy professor at Hunter College. To combat the problem, “New York City should make it easier for eligible New Yorkers to enroll in Food Stamps,” he said. “Second, New York City should make free school lunches available to all the city’s school children, not just those who meet income eligibility. Finally, New York City should re-establish public food markets that offer subsidized healthy foods in poor neighborhoods.
14. Arizona Bill Allowing Schools to Opt Out of Lunch Program Could Spell Disaster for Students
(Open Salon, January 23, 2012)
Arizona law requires K-8 district schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program, but a bill introduced by Sen. Rich Crandall (R-Mesa) would allow schools to opt out (high schools and charter schools are already exempt from the original law). Crandall is concerned that the new federal school meal standards would affect schools financially, and suggests that students who rely on free meals and attend schools dropping lunch should transfer to a school that offers the meal, should the bill pass. “While we may feel some sympathy that actually serving healthy food to kids may cost a bit more for Arizona’s already cash strapped schools,” notes this blog post, “the idea of passing legislation to allow for the elimination of these meals altogether is a prime example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.” Crandall’s suggestion that students change schools for free lunch “ominously smacks of school segregation based on economic need.” Dropping lunch could increase the school dropout rate. Other federal cuts to programs like WIC mean that “children are simply going without food during their important developmental years.” Governor Brewer recently said the state has a $600 million budget surplus. “An obvious solution to higher costs of school lunches,” concludes the blog post, is to apply some of that money “towards providing free nutritionally balanced lunches to all low-income children in public schools.”
15. Wisconsin School Starts Free Breakfast for All Students
(Bayfield County Journal, January 31, 2012)
Drummond School in Wisconsin will offer free breakfast to all students between now and the end of the year, at which time the school board will review participation numbers and consider extending the program. The school board decided to pilot free breakfast at the school after breakfast participation numbers jumped by an average of 250 students a day when a grant provided free breakfast for a week. During that week, breakfast was offered to students after the first hour of class, rather than before class began; the pilot program will continue to serve breakfast to students after the first hour. “We can provide free breakfast for the year for between $800 and $1400 because of reimbursement,” said John Knight, district administrator. “Because of the severe need and poverty level of the students, free breakfast will benefit the students.”
16. Colorado Schools Sees Multiple Benefits with Breakfast in the Classroom
(Denver Post, February 1, 2012)
Clayton Elementary School in Englewood, Colorado, saw school breakfast participation increase - from 91 meals served each day in April 2010 to an average of 405 breakfasts served daily in 2011 – since the school began serving breakfast in the classroom. The school earned a gold award, and $5,000, from the Colorado School Breakfast Challenge for the increase. In addition to participation, “[t]eachers are reporting increased participation and attendance from students and a dramatic increase in endurance,” said the school’s principal, Nikki Westfall. “Our families are happier too, They are reporting much less stressful mornings.” According to Clayton officials, data shows that student tardies dropped, from August to December 2010 to the same time period in 2011, 15 percent; discipline referrals dropped 50 percent. “When schools move to a universal breakfast program, we have seen it removes the stigmas associated with eating breakfast,” said Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado. “School nurse visits and behavioral problems drop.” The school plans to use the award money for health and wellness classes tied to breakfast, in addition to purchasing more insulated food bags and carts. “I’m a big believer that if we’re serious about ed reform, we will have to look at making sure children are fed,” said Underhill. “It’s not an either/or. If you have not eaten, your mind is not there in the classroom.”
17. Ohio Working to Increase Summer Meal Participation
(Columbus Dispatch, January 31, 2012)
A recent summit meeting at a Mid-Ohio Foodbank location brought together federal, state and community officials to discuss ways to increase the state’s summer meals participation. In 2011, the Summer Food Service Program served 3.6 million meals at more than 1500 sites, but no summer meals were served in 14 counties because of budget cutbacks. “It’s paid for,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon when he recently visited Columbus. “The funds are available and we know the need is out there,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks. The Ohio Department of Education reported that 45 percent of Ohio schoolchildren (a record 840,000) receive free or reduced-price school meals – 52 percent more than 10 years ago. Officials at the summit urge government, nonprofit and faith-based groups to either sponsor or serve as a summer meal site; more information is available at www.education.ohio.gov or by calling (877) 644-6338.
18. Food Insecurity, Obesity, Type II Diabetes High Among American Indian and Alaska Native Children
(USDA/FNS (pdf), January 2012)
Relative to the averages of all U.S. children of similar ages, American Indian (AI) and Alaska Native (AN) children have twice the levels of food insecurity, obesity and Type II diabetes, notes this USDA report titled Addressing Child Hunger and Obesity in Indian Country: Report to Congress. AI/ANs make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and more than 24 percent of AI/AN households, in 2010, were below the federal poverty line, compared with 15 percent of the U.S. population. While 13 percent of the U.S. population received SNAP/Food Stamps in 2010, 24 percent of AI/AN households received the benefit. In 2008, 540,000 people identifying as AI/AN received SNAP/Food Stamps in an average month. AI/AN households are more likely to be food insecure, due to high levels of unemployment, poverty, low education levels and relative isolation of many reservations, which limits food access to these populations. Nearly twice as many AI/AN households with children were food insecure (28 percent) than non-AI/AN households with children (16 percent). AI/AN children have experienced a dramatic increase in overweight and obesity, and AI/ANs are disproportionately affected by diabetes. It’s estimated that AI/ANs are 2.3 times more likely to have diabetes than the U.S. general population.
19. Foundation Helping Provide Salad Bars in Texas Schools
(BusinessWire, January 20, 2012)
The United Fresh Foundation, a founding partner of Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, is helping Texas schools purchase salad bars. Any Texas school district or K-12 school is invited to apply for a salad bar at www.saladbars2schools.org. The Foundation has a goal of donating 100 salad bars to Texas schools, part of its commitment to improving child health.
20. Research Finds Some WIC Families Forced to Stretch Infant Formula
(Newswise, January 17, 2012)
A study of two Ohio urban health centers, published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, found that two-thirds of WIC families report running out of WIC-supplied formula near the end of the month; 27 percent of food-insecure families either water down formula or reduce feedings to stretch formula, which can seriously affect infant brain development and lead to cognitive, behavioral and psychological issues. About 30 percent of families in the clinics reported they were food insecure, twice the national average. “We were surprised to find one in three families worried about putting food on the table,” said Andrew Beck, MD, MPH, one of the study’s authors and a general pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “Food insecurity tends to be an invisible problem, forcing families to make difficult choices between nutrition and other essential needs.” The research team, motivated by this study and another which found that pediatric residents identify only 2 percent of food insecure families, launched a project that will help doctors identify families experiencing issues with hunger. “Families are sometimes reluctant to report food insecurity because of the stigma,” said study author Robert Kahn, MD. “We made a number of improvements, including training our pediatric residents to ask about hunger issues in a more sensitive manner.” Following the training, pediatric residents began identifying 11 percent of food insecure families.
21. Students Demonstrate for More Breakfast Items at Food Pantry
(LoHud.com, January 23, 2012)
“I scream, you scream, we all scream for breakfast” chanted about 100 Rye Brook Middle School sixth-graders recently at a Stop & Shop in New York State as they demonstrated in support of the Carver Center food pantry offering more breakfast items for low-income families. As part of the event, the Stop & Shop manager presented a $1,500 donation to the pantry. Students became interested in the pantry as part of a public outreach challenge. “All of the shelves looked really empty,” said sixth-grader Tonya Finkman. “It had a powerful impact on us.”
22. Researchers Work to Unlock Paradox of Hunger and Obesity
(Minnesota Public Radio, January 27, 2012)
Researchers are attempting to find the answer to the question “how can people be both hungry and overweight?” Fruits, vegetables and whole grains cost more, said Mary Story, a dietician at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “And many low-income people live in neighborhoods or communities that lack access to a supermarket. If you are a parent, and you have a limited amount of money and you’re trying to feed a family, what choices do people really have?” Mothers who eat less due to scarce amounts of food actually reduce the number of calories their bodies need, notes Cornell University professor Christine Olson, who has been studying the hunger and obesity link for years. “So then, if food becomes plentiful, and you eat the same number of calories that used to be fine for you, your body is more efficient, so it will convert some of that extra energy to fat,” she said.
23. State Tax Burden High for U.S. Poor, Low for “1%”
(Mother Jones, February 3, 2012)
While the federal income tax is progressive (although not as much as it used to be, notes this editorial), payroll taxes are currently regressive, with the rich paying less than the poor and middle class. In Mississippi, the poorest 20 percent pay twice the state tax rate of the top 1 percent, according to a recent scorecard for states released by the Corporation for Enterprise Development. The worst ranking states have poor residents paying five to six times the tax rates of the richest 1 percent. “There’s not a single state with a tax system that’s progressive,” concludes the editorial, which includes a table showing tax rate comparisons for rich and poor in all 50 states and D.C.