The Center's work on 'Food Assistance' Issues

The Center designs and promotes polices to make the Food Stamp Program more adequate to help recipients afford an adequate diet, more accessible to eligible families and individuals, and easier for states to administer. We also help states design their own food stamp programs for persons ineligible for the federal program. Our work on the WIC program includes ensuring that sufficient federal funds are provided to serve all eligible applicants and on helping states contain WIC costs. Our work on child nutrition programs focuses on helping states and school districts implement recent changes in how they determine a child’s eligibility for free or reduced-priced school meals.

Who Are the People Who Will Lose SNAP Next Year?

January 13, 2015 at 3:36 pm

This infographic summarizes basic facts about unemployed childless adults receiving SNAP (formerly food stamps), roughly 1 million of whom will be cut off SNAP over the course of 2016 — regardless of how hard they are looking for work — as a three-month time limit on benefits returns in many areas.  (Click here for full image. Click here for printable version.)

Congress should revise the harsh three-month cutoff to better accomplish its stated goal of testing individuals’ willingness to work.  If it doesn’t, some of the nation’s poorest people will lose an average of $150 to $200 a month in benefits.  This means food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens can expect a sustained increase in food requests because “there are not very many options to get help when you need food,” the operations director of a Bozeman, Montana, food bank explains.  Also, homeless shelters may see an increase in need as some people forgo rent payments to buy food.

1 Million People Facing Cutoff of SNAP Benefits Next Year

January 7, 2015 at 12:18 pm

Roughly 1 million of the nation’s poorest people will be cut off SNAP (formerly food stamps) over the course of 2016 — even if they’re looking for a job but can’t find one —because a three-month time limit on benefits for unemployed childless adults who aren’t disabled will return in many geographic areas.

As our new report explains, the affected people will lose an average of $150 to $200 per person per month.  For this group, that’s a dramatic loss.  People subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of about 19 percent of the poverty line (about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014), and they typically don’t qualify for other income support.

Part of the 1996 welfare law, the three-month limit hasn’t been in effect in most states in recent years because states can waive it temporarily in areas with high unemployment.  But as unemployment rates fall, fewer areas will qualify for waivers, even though many people —including many lower-skilled workers — who want to work still can’t find jobs.  People subject to the three-month limit generally have limited education and skills and limited job prospects.

Some states that have already imposed the time limit have seen SNAP caseloads drop sharply — much faster than the slow decline they’d experienced due to an improving economy.  (In this economic recovery, like previous ones, SNAP caseloads have fallen as unemployment has improved.)  In Kansas, for example, the caseload decline three months after the time limit returned was more than triple the previous trend (see graph).

Unemployed childless adults can continue to receive SNAP beyond three months by participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.  But very few states provide these programs to all who need them.  As a result, someone who wants to work but can’t find a job, and is willing to participate in job training but has no opportunity to do so, will lose his or her SNAP benefits after three months.

Congress still has time to mitigate the harm.  It could, for example, require a state to offer a job or training position or other work activity — or require job search — for all adults subject to the limit and continue benefits for all who comply.  Without any such action, food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens can expect a sustained increase in food requests from this large and widespread loss of assistance.

What’s more, community groups and service providers such as homeless shelters, low-income veterans’ groups, job training centers, and health clinics count on SNAP as a resource for their clients.  Those losing SNAP may be forced to choose between food and other necessities, like rent or medicine.

It’s not too early for states, community partners, and nonprofits to start preparing for the return of the three-month limit, which will have a big impact on the people they serve.

Potato Mandate Overrides WIC’s Science-Based Policy

December 15, 2014 at 12:50 pm

In requiring the WIC nutrition program to add white potatoes to the foods it provides, Congress last week pandered to industry lobbyists rather than prioritizing the nutritional needs of low-income women and very young children.

Study after study shows that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) improves birth outcomes and participants’ diets.  One reason is that it provides a “prescription food package” of a limited number of nutritionally important foods that participants’ diets tend to lack.  WIC doesn’t offer white potatoes because low-income women and young children already eat plenty of them.

With the addition of white potatoes to the food package, many participants will consume inadequate amounts of certain other important foods — because every WIC dollar spent on white potatoes is one dollar less for other fruits and vegetables.

The selection of foods to include in the WIC food package has always followed a rigorous, science-based process.  The current foods reflect a review that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted about a decade ago.  IOM is doing a new review to modify the WIC food package to reflect the latest scientific findings.

Yet Congress didn’t wait for the results.  Instead, at the behest of the potato industry, the 2015 funding bill about to become law dictates that WIC begin offering white potatoes. This is the first time in WIC’s 40-year history that Congress has overridden the science-based process and mandated the addition of a particular food.

Ultimately, WIC should return to its sound science base.  The new potato mandate expires if the next scientific review recommends removing white potatoes from the WIC food list.

But Congress’ decision, at the behest of special interests, to substitute its judgment for that of nutrition scientists and maternal and child health experts sets an unwise and dangerous precedent.  Lobbyists for other food industries may now try to prod Congress to insist that WIC offer their foods as well, regardless of the foods’ nutritional value.  That could jeopardize WIC’s widely heralded success at improving participants’ nutrition and health.

High-Poverty Schools Using New Tool to Streamline Meal Programs

December 9, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Half of the high-poverty schools eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision, which became available nationally this year, adopted it to streamline their meal programs and free up resources for other education priorities, the Agriculture Department (USDA) announced today.

For decades, USDA has offered options to allow high-poverty schools to serve meals to all students at no charge.  Community eligibility, which has phased in over the last four years, further simplifies the meal programs by eliminating the need for schools to process applications or track individual students’ eligibility.

Nearly 14,000 schools adopted community eligibility this year to better serve their students and impoverished communities, and USDA found that more than 6.4 million low-income students attend these high-poverty schools.

Community eligibility is designed to be easy for various types of low-income school districts to implement.  Districts that have adopted it include urban areas like California’s Fresno Unified School District, where 88 percent of students used to qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and rural areas like Kentucky’s Harlan County Public Schools, which serve the families of many laid-off miners.  Harlan County adopted community eligibility when it first became available in Kentucky four years ago, and its test scores have improved from the 14th percentile in the state to the 55th percentile — evidence that feeding hungry children can contribute to an improved learning environment.

Educators at eligible school districts that haven’t adopted community eligibility can learn more about it from their peers and adopt it for the rest of the school year, or for next year, so that the low-income children they serve get the healthy meals they need to grow, learn, and thrive.

Shielding Homeless Children From Hunger

December 1, 2014 at 1:08 pm

More than 1.2 million children attending public school lack a home of their own, my colleague Douglas Rice recently noted.  They also are at greater risk of hunger.  The school meal programs, by providing a healthy breakfast and lunch at no charge, can help meet the nutritional needs of homeless children — as well as millions of other vulnerable low-income children who can’t count on getting enough to eat.

Two program features make it easier for children whose families are going through especially hard times to obtain school meals.

  • Automatic enrollment for homeless children. Regardless of where they attend school, children who are homeless automatically qualify for free school meals.  Their families don’t have to complete an application; once an appropriate school official identifies a child as homeless, the child can be approved for free school meals.  Moreover, starting this school year, eligibility begins as soon as the official notifies the school nutrition program, so children don’t go hungry or have to pay for school meals if school nutrition staff can’t immediately complete the enrollment process.
  • Community eligibility. Schools in poor neighborhoods, where unstable housing can be widespread, can eliminate applications altogether and serve meals at no charge to all students under the Community Eligibility ProvisionThousands of high-poverty schools use this option to serve meals without paperwork or stigma.

Let’s make sure that schools fully utilize these tools to ensure that homeless children get two healthy meals each school day.