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.


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.

Reaching More Needy Americans

November 26, 2014 at 12:20 pm

We’ve noted this Thanksgiving week that the safety net helps millions of Americans avert hardship and meet basic needs like food and housing.  Unfortunately, many eligible people miss out on needed help.  At a time of year when many Americans make a special effort to help the less fortunate, states and localities can redouble their efforts to connect these powerful programs to vulnerable friends and neighbors.

One important area needing attention is reaching people eligible for both SNAP (formerly food stamps) and Medicaid.  In four of the five states that Urban Institute researchers examined, only about two-thirds of children and adults who were eligible for both programs actually received both (see graph).  The rates were even lower for adults: in three of the five states, fewer than 60 percent of eligible adults received both.

The study recommends that states simplify application procedures and do more to inform eligible people about these benefits.

Changes like these can have a big impact.  Many states have made intensive efforts in recent years to increase SNAP participation among eligible people, such as by expanding outreach and reforming policies that discourage participation, particularly among working families.  (Those policies include requiring recipients to go to SNAP offices every 90 days to reapply and imposing unnecessary paperwork.)  States have streamlined administrative processes while maintaining high payment accuracy.

These activities boosted SNAP’s national participation rate from 54 percent to 83 percent between 2002 and 2012.  These efforts, however, have been within SNAP and don’t always ensure that eligible people get both SNAP and other critical supports, like Medicaid.  The relatively low joint participation rate for Medicaid and SNAP suggests that states can do much better to enroll people who qualify for both programs.

Food Assistance Needs Remain High

November 24, 2014 at 3:59 pm

As many Americans prepare to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, millions in this country still have trouble affording enough to eat.  Moreover, poverty and food insecurity, or the share of households with difficulty affording adequate food, remain well above pre-recession levels (see graph) — signs of the critical importance of SNAP and other food assistance.

Food banks from Alaska to Massachusetts to Missouri to Virginia report high need in many communities, sometimes higher than in the recession.  Over half of food programs surveyed reported an increase in clients over the previous year, a recent Feeding America study found.  About half of the households that visit food banks and pantries are working households struggling to feed their families on low wages, the group reports.

By helping families afford an adequate diet, SNAP (formerly food stamps) — which reaches 46 million Americans — reduces poverty and food insecurity.  SNAP also reduces other hardships, such as falling behind on the rent, by freeing up some room in families’ tight budgets.

Yet SNAP benefits, which are based on a formula that presumes a bare-bones diet, fall short for many families.  Benefit levels fail to account for several factors that affect a low-income family’s access to adequate food, an Institute of Medicine study found.  “[A] SNAP allotment that is adequate for a household with sufficient time and skill to purchase and prepare many meals from scratch, with easy access to food stores, and living in a relatively low cost part of the country, may be inadequate for a household without these attributes,” it explains.

Changes in the value of SNAP benefits also affect families’ ability to put food on the table.  Food insecurity fell when the 2009 Recovery Act temporarily boosted SNAP benefits but then rose as this benefit increase lost value due to inflation.  The end of the benefit boost last November, when all recipients experienced a roughly 7 percent cut, likely affected their food insecurity as well.  Some food banks reported a rise in food assistance needs after the cut took effect.