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.


SNAP Kept Nearly 5 Million People out of Poverty Last Year, New Figures Show

October 16, 2014 at 1:39 pm

SNAP (formerly food stamps) kept 4.8 million people above the poverty line in 2013, including 2.1 million children, our analysis of Census data released today shows (see graph).  The figures are based on Census’ Supplemental Poverty Measure, which — unlike the official poverty measure — includes non-cash benefits (like SNAP) and taxes as well as cash income.

By providing low-income families with resources to buy food, SNAP not only reduces “food insecurity” (difficulty affording adequate food) but also frees up room in their very tight budgets to cover other necessities, such as rent and clothing.

SNAP has an especially pronounced impact on poverty among the poorest families with children:  close to half (45 percent) of SNAP participants are children, and SNAP benefits are targeted to the poorest households.  In 2013, SNAP kept 1.3 million children out of “deep poverty” (incomes below half of the poverty line, or roughly $9,800 for a family of three).

Data Desire Needn’t Be Barrier to Kids’ Meals

October 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is now available nationwide, yet some districts are hesitant to implement it for fear of losing data from school meal applications.  But to get the data, we need not sacrifice school meals for kids.

Across the country, teachers and school nutrition administrators have praised CEP, which allows high-poverty schools to feed all students breakfast and lunch at no charge, for streamlining the school meal programs.  One of its key benefits is that participating schools don’t collect meal applications or make individual eligibility determinations, removing an administrative burden on school districts.  Instead, whole schools qualify to implement CEP based on the share of their students who are automatically approved for school meals because their families are enrolled in an anti-poverty program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) or because they are at risk of hunger due to being homeless or in foster care.

While eliminating meal applications simplifies school meal programs, school districts have long used the income data from applications to gauge a school’s or family’s poverty level to target education funding or other benefits to the most needy.  As a result, it’s critical that CEP not disadvantage high-poverty schools or low-income children with regard to education funding or services.  It is equally important that an interest in data from school meal applications not stand in the way of making it easier for low-income children to receive the nutritious meals they need at school.

School districts and states that need a data source to replace the meal applications can use one of many available alternatives.  The U.S. Department of Education has issued detailed and flexible guidance on how CEP schools can fully participate in Title I, the federal education funding stream for disadvantaged students.  The guidance offers three main options for alternative data that school districts can use when implementing CEP.  The states that adopted CEP over the past few years have praised the flexible options.

States have taken different approaches with regard to their own education funding and other benefits that states and school districts allocate based on meal application data.  Louisiana and Texas, for example, are relying on the data that remains available through the school meal programs (Louisiana combines it with data from other programs).  States like Kentucky and Michigan have school districts collect individual income information outside the meal programs, which makes sense when the data are needed for other purposes.  California requires school districts to collect individual income data, but they can then use the data for four years.

Changing data sources does require administrative adjustments and may result in modest shifts in funding allocations.  But we hope that schools’ desire for data about which children are struggling with poverty and food insecurity won’t stand in the way of alleviating those hardships.

A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits

October 1, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Today’s start of fiscal year 2015 brings small adjustments to SNAP (formerly food stamps) eligibility and benefits.  We’ve updated our quick guide that provides an overview of SNAP eligibility and benefit calculation rules.

To be eligible for SNAP, a household must meet three tests related to gross monthly income, net income, and assets.  Our guide defines “income” and “assets” and clarifies who isn’t eligible regardless of income or assets — such as individuals who are on strike, all undocumented immigrants, and certain legal immigrants.

It also provides guidelines for calculating a household’s monthly SNAP benefits.  Families with no net income receive the maximum benefit (see table), which equals the cost of the Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan (a diet plan intended to provide adequate nutrition at a minimal cost).  For all other households, the monthly SNAP benefit equals the maximum benefit for that household size minus the household’s expected contribution.

The guide explains how deductions — including shelter expenses, dependent care, child support, and medical expenses — play an important role in determining SNAP benefits.  It also walks through a calculation of benefits for a sample family of three with one full-time, minimum-wage worker and two children, taking into account the family’s income, deductions, and expected contribution toward food.

Click here to read the full paper.

Do Medicaid and SNAP Reach Those Who Most Need Them?

September 30, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Millions of low-income people qualify for both Medicaid and SNAP (formerly food stamps), but the federal government doesn’t regularly assess how many of them actually receive both.  That’s a significant omission: Medicaid and SNAP address the most basic needs of our poorest citizens, and health care and nutrition assistance likely produce more powerful results when provided together.  A new Urban Institute paper examining joint participation among eligible children and non-elderly adults in five states — something the federal government could do for all states every year — suggests there is substantial room for improvement.

Urban Institute researchers calculated joint participation rates for 2011 in Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  (These states participate in the Work Support Strategies initiative, which is developing and testing better ways to deliver key supports for low-income working families.)  They found significant gaps in joint enrollment: in four of the states, only about two-thirds of non-elderly adults and children who were eligible for both Medicaid and SNAP actually received both (see graph).

The findings are consistent with our 2011 report’s finding that a large share of poor children — who are very likely eligible for both Medicaid and SNAP — aren’t enrolled in both.

(To be sure, both findings predate health reform implementation, so they don’t reflect participation of many newly eligible low-income adults in states that expanded Medicaid.  Nor do they reflect the major changes in Medicaid application and enrollment systems that health reform requires in order to improve participation.)

Over 40 states co-administer Medicaid and SNAP for low-income families, often using joint forms, the same computer systems, and the same eligibility workers, so one program’s performance often depends on the other’s.  Yet the federal agencies that oversee the two programs issue program policy, oversee operations, and assess state performance on the two programs separately.

States are key partners in delivering the safety net, so it’s important to take a holistic view of their performance, not just a program-by-program approach.  An annual federal assessment of the share of Medicaid- and SNAP-eligible people in each state who actually receive both would better inform federal and state officials on how well we serve our poorest families and individuals.

VA Governor Lauds Community Eligibility

September 29, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has good things to say about the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows high-poverty schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.  Speaking recently about how to improve education, he said in part:

It will surprise no one here to learn that studies show poverty is the number one predictor that a student will face educational challenges. . . .  Nor will it surprise anyone that the number of students here in Petersburg impacted by the local economy is high. . . .  This doesn’t excuse failure – in fact it makes it all the more important that we help these children succeed. . . .

[Local] educational leaders are ensuring that students get the nutritional support they need through the Community Eligibility Provision.  This important program allows school divisions to offer free breakfast and lunch to every student if the division meets certain criteria. Richmond and Petersburg have implemented this program division wide, and Norfolk has opened the program to its eight eligible schools.

[School nutrition] programs work and we need to ensure that every single Virginia school division is taking maximum advantage of federal and state resources to get students the nutrition they need to fulfill their potential. . . .

I want to stress the importance of running these programs in a way that eliminates the stigma about free and reduced [price] meals. There should be no special lines or unique treatment for these students, so that they can get the nutrition they need without embarrassment.

The option became available to high-poverty schools nationwide this year for the first time, and preliminary data show that 86 Virginia schools have adopted it, reaching almost 43,000 students.  Officials in other states have described the difference that it’s making in terms of student attendance and academic performance.

Educators and policymakers have long recognized that hungry students are not well-positioned to learn.   CEP is a proven tool to ensure that all students at high-poverty schools have two nutritious meals daily, which helps them succeed in the classroom.

School districts interested in adopting community eligibility for the current school year can reach out to their state nutrition director for further information.

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.

What Schools Are Saying About Community Eligibility

August 15, 2014 at 11:14 am

School officials around the country have explained (see here and here) why they’re adopting community eligibility, a powerful new tool to fight hunger in high-poverty neighborhoods by allowing schools to offer nutritious meals to all students at no charge.  As schools and families prepare for the new school year — and as the August 31st signup deadline for eligible schools approaches — here’s more of what school officials are saying about the benefits of community eligibility:

  • Bill Redwine, chair of Rowan County, Kentucky, board of education:

    “This program will have a direct benefit on students in the classroom because teachers know that students who are hungry or have not had breakfast have difficulty concentrating on their schoolwork. . . .  It will also benefit those parents who, in the past, have struggled to provide the money for their child’s meals.  This definitely is a win for our students, for their parents and for our district as a whole.”

  • Jesse Register, director of Metropolitan Nashville, Tennessee, schools:

    “We’re firm believers in educating the whole child and providing them what they need for productive school days.  If a child is hungry, he’s going to have trouble learning.  No child should go hungry and no child should be embarrassed about accepting a meal.  By making it universal, we don’t have to single out any child and we can make family budgets a little less tight.”

  • Margaret Allen, superintendent of Montgomery, Alabama schools:

    “Studies have shown that children who receive proper nutrition perform better in school. . . .   Many of our families live below the poverty line.  Even those that don’t, may skip meals to save money.  This will ensure learning won’t suffer because a student is hungry at school.”

  • Kim Hall, director of child nutrition services, Muskogee, Oklahoma, public schools:

    “Being able to eat a nutritious meal during the day helps the students learn — students that eat during the day are more likely to pay attention because they are not worried about being hungry.”

  • Joey Vaughn, nutrition director, Huntsville, Alabama, city schools:

    “Hopefully, this is going to do away with the stigma [of receiving free school meals] because everybody is going to be able to eat for free.  Nobody’s got to fill out any paperwork; nobody’s got to prove their financial status.”

  • Lisa Stevenson, principal of Neil Armstrong Elementary School, Eldridge, Iowa:

    “Families that don’t have as much money don’t spend the extra money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store because that’s expensive. . . .  This is an opportunity for us to get kids . . . on the right path to trying new and healthy food when they’re at school.”

  • Donna Hargens, superintendent of Jefferson County, Kentucky, public schools:

    “You can’t learn if you’re hungry so we know that providing breakfast and lunch for more of our kids is a really important ingredient and that’s just integral to kids learning.”

Is Your School Eligible to Become Hunger Free?

August 13, 2014 at 3:47 pm

With the August 31 deadline fast approaching for schools to adopt the Community Eligibility Provision for the new school year, we’ve created a searchable database listing each state’s eligible schools.

Community eligibility, which becomes available nationwide this year, enables high-poverty schools and school districts to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.

The database also lists each state’s Identified Student Percentage (ISP), or the share of students who are already approved for free meals without an application because they either have been identified as low income by another program (such as SNAP, formerly food stamps) or are considered at risk of hunger (because they are homeless or in foster care, for example).

School districts, individual schools, or groups of schools can qualify for community eligibility if their ISP is at least 40 percent.  And under community eligibility, schools with higher ISPs receive higher federal reimbursements for the meals they serve.

For more on community eligibility, see this detailed report.