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.


Causes of Food Insecurity Go Well Beyond Low Incomes

September 16, 2014 at 10:37 am

With about 1 in 5 children (and 1 in 7 Americans overall) living in households where someone has trouble affording adequate food at some point during the year, a Brookings Institution report released yesterday reviews research findings on the causes of food insecurity among children and the effectiveness of policies to address it.  Not surprisingly, the report finds that families with low incomes are more likely to be food insecure.  But it also finds that other factors, such as the health of  caregivers and access to stable housing and child care, can influence children’s food insecurity — findings with important lessons for policymakers.

“[E]ven when income and other risk factors are accounted for, adult caregivers’ mental and physical health play a central role in children’s food security,” explains the report’s authors, the University of Illinois’ Craig Gundersen and the University of Kentucky’s James P. Ziliak.  Caregivers in food-insecure households were more likely to report physical and mental health problems, such as depression and substance abuse, than caregivers in food-secure households.

Other factors affecting food insecurity include child-care arrangements — children attending a child-care center were less likely to be food insecure than other children — lack of stable housing, and income instability, the report found.

In examining how well food assistance programs fight food insecurity, the report states, “in most studies, SNAP [i.e., food stamp] participation leads to substantial reductions in food insecurity.”  While SNAP recipients usually have higher rates of food insecurity than other low-income households, that’s because people often apply for SNAP in response to food insecurity, the report explains.

In a panel discussion after the report’s release, CBPP President Robert Greenstein cited its implications for policies in a number of areas, from health reform’s Medicaid expansion to providing more adequate child care funding.  For example, in the median state that hasn’t adopted the Medicaid expansion, a mother loses Medicaid eligibility when her income rises above just 47 percent of the poverty line; expanding Medicaid would enable these states to expand access to health care, potentially reducing food insecurity in households with children.

Schools Can Do Even More to Shield Children From Hunger

September 8, 2014 at 12:33 pm

As students begin a new school year, U.S. Department of Agriculture data confirm that too many children — nearly 16 million — live in families that continue to struggle to afford adequate food, known as “food insecurity.”  While many parents in these households can shield their children from hardship, in more than half of them, children themselves were food insecure.  Poor diets and the stress of not knowing when their next meal will be take an enormous and lasting toll on children’s health, development, and readiness to learn.

That’s why the federal nutrition programs that serve children are so important.  Consider the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, well-established programs that have been feeding millions of children for decades, and that keep improving.  These programs reach a striking share of American children.  On a typical day during the past school year, more than 30 million — nearly three in five — students ate a school lunch.  Some 71 percent of those children — more than 21 million — received a free or reduced-price meal.  That means that more than two in five students benefited from free or reduced-price lunches on a typical day last year (see chart).

Despite this extraordinary reach, some children who could benefit from free school meals miss out because their school district doesn’t automatically enroll them as required.  But states and school districts can take steps to ensure that the most vulnerable children receive free meals.

For example, states can improve the processes for automatically enrolling children for free meals when their family receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamp) benefits.  School districts can make sure they are identifying children who are homeless or in foster care so that they begin receiving free meals immediately during a period of family turmoil.  And under a new policy that’s especially important at the start of the school year, schools can begin feeding low-income children as soon as they receive an application, even if they have a processing backlog.

This school year, high-poverty schools across the country also have a new opportunity, under the Community Eligibility Provision, to feed all students at no cost while simplifying their meal programs.  Thousands of schools have already implemented community eligibility and states may continue to accept applications from eligible districts to offer community eligibility for this school year.

For the millions of children in families that struggle to afford nutritious food, being able to count on receiving two healthy meals each school day is a critical support.

New “Food Insecurity” Figures Show Recovery Has Yet to Reach Many

September 3, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Some 14.3 percent of the nation’s households were “food insecure” in 2013, meaning they had difficulty affording adequate food at some point during the year, today’s Agriculture Department (USDA) report shows — a figure not statistically different from 2012’s 14.5 percent and well above pre-recession levels (see graph).   The persistence of high food insecurity in the aftermath of the recession shows that the economic recovery has failed to reach many low-income families.  It also highlights the importance of SNAP (formerly food stamps) in helping families obtain an adequate diet.

The roughly 49 million people in food-insecure households include 15.8 million children, according to the report.

Households with children face especially high rates of food insecurity:  about 19.5 percent among households with children overall and 20.9 percent among households with children under age 6.  Research shows that household food insecurity is linked to negative health and developmental outcomes for children, including poorer physical health and psychosocial development, iron deficiency anemia, and higher rates of hospitalization and chronic health conditions.

Food insecurity also varies significantly by state.  The highest rates in 2011-2013 were in Arkansas (21.2 percent), Mississippi (21.1 percent), and Texas (18 percent).  (USDA uses a three-year average for individual states due to small sample sizes.)  The lowest rates were in North Dakota (8.7 percent), Virginia (9.5 percent), and New Hampshire (10.2 percent).  Most states saw no statistically significant change in 2011-2013 from 2008-2010, but five of the six states that did experience a change saw an increase.

USDA’s annual survey also found that 5.6 percent of households had “very low food security” in 2013, meaning that household members had to take steps such as skipping meals at some point during the year due to lack of resources.  The share of households with very low food security has remained statistically unchanged since 2011 and well above pre-recession levels.

SNAP Caseloads Down — as Expected

September 2, 2014 at 3:20 pm

“Food Stamp Use Starting to Fall,” the Wall Street Journal points out, noting that SNAP (formerly food stamp) caseloads have fallen by 1.6 million people since their 2012 peak and that the Congressional Budget Office predicts SNAP spending will drop to its 1995 level as a share of the economy in five years.

As we’ve explained, SNAP caseloads grew dramatically during the recession and stayed high due largely to a weak labor market.  As the economy began to recover, caseload growth began to flatten and then fall (see graph), a pattern consistent with past recessions.

Most states’ SNAP caseloads this May were below last May’s levels, the latest Agriculture Department data show (though caseloads were flat or somewhat higher in roughly a dozen states).

The WSJ story gives several examples of former SNAP recipients who’ve since left the program:

One beneficiary-turned-former-beneficiary is Louis Alexander.  Mr. Alexander turned to food stamps last year after losing his job as a maintenance man.  A year later, he is working again — as a truck driver for a company near his home in Louisville, Ky.

He credits food stamps for helping him eat and pay his other bills while job searching. . . .

For Jessica Singh, an unmarried mother who stopped using food stamps this spring, things are generally looking up.

After being dependent on SNAP for over two years, the 26-year-old in Fort Wayne, Ind., got a degree in human services, found internships and has landed two part-time jobs, including one at a domestic-violence shelter. Food stamps “definitely gave me a sense of stability,” she said.  “You know there is going to be food on the table.”

And yet it isn’t easy going without SNAP’s safety net.  If her 2-year-old gets sick and Ms. Singh can’t work, her income takes a hit.  Last month, Ms. Singh visited a food pantry for the first time, picking up free boxes of pancake mix, cereal and Hamburger Helper, along with toilet paper.  She said she will go earlier next time; by the time she got there during her first trip, items like bananas and hamburger meat were gone.

For more on SNAP, including cost and caseload trends, who’s eligible, and its impact, see our chart book.

Counting Down to August 31 Deadline to Adopt Community Eligibility

August 28, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Schools have a few more days before the August 31 deadline to opt in to the Community Eligibility Provision.  Community eligibility — which allows high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge without having to process meal applications —is a proven success and an important tool to help children achieve their academic goals.  More than 28,000 schools nationwide are eligible to adopt the provision and become hunger-free.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has encouraged states to continue to accept applications after the deadline and even after the school year begins.  During this transition year, schools can still implement community eligibility even if they have disseminated and collected free and reduced-price meal applications, according to USDA’s July 2014 Guidance.  The sooner they adopt the provision, however, the sooner they will be able to cut back on paperwork, receive reimbursement according to the community eligibility formula — and make meals more readily available to all students.

Community eligibility allows high-poverty schools to ensure that students are ready to learn and receive two nutritious meals every day.  Schools can receive more information on their individual state’s application process by contacting their State Nutrition Director.