Developing strategies to end hunger
 

126 posts categorized "U.S. Hunger"

Stretching SNAP to Give Families More Nutrients

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP (known as food stamps until 2008), is the country’s first line of defense against hunger. Anyone who meets the eligibility requirements is able to participate. This legal “entitlement” – meaning that the program expands to serve all those eligible – explains why, when unemployment and poverty rates soared during the Great Recession, hunger rates did not rise dramatically.

So there’s no doubt that SNAP helps tens of millions of Americans afford groceries in tough economic times. Poverty does not automatically mean hunger in our country, because SNAP is a reliable safety net. In recent years, Bread for the World members have been spending significant time and energy defending SNAP from policy changes that increase hunger – largely successfully.  Recently on Institute Notes, we explained how states can grow their economies by using a SNAP policy option called Heat and Eat, even as the 2014 farm bill made it more expensive for them to do so.

But in the midst of our focus on playing defense, it is important to remember that improvements in SNAP would serve its participants better. The fact is, even the max baby being fed with a spoonimum monthly SNAP benefit is often not enough for a family to afford sufficient amounts of healthy food.

Here are two ways to help ensure that all SNAP participants can afford a healthy diet.

First, USDA could more accurately consider the burden of the high housing costs borne by many low-income people. The USDA formula allows households that would otherwise get less than the maximum benefit to get more SNAP benefits when they have “excess” housing and utility expenses. But these expenses are only considered “excess” when they are greater than 50 percent of a household’s net income, even though the federal government has long recognized that housing is only affordable when it costs less than 30 percent of income. It would be better to start SNAP’s excess shelter cost deduction when a household is paying more than 30 percent of its net income for housing, instead of the current 50 percent. In addition, all households could be allowed to deduct their full utility and excess housing expenses; there is currently a cap that applies to households without elderly or disabled members. 

For example, let’s consider a parent and child living in Washington, DC. This family is lucky: DC’s minimum wage just went up to $9.50 an hour, so a full-time minimum-wage job would pay about $1,634 a month. Let’s say they’re luckier still— they have no child care expenses and no disabilities, and they are able to find an apartment for $735 a month (that’s 45 percent of their gross income, but still far less than the Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in DC).  Such a family would qualify for $138 a month in SNAP benefits, well under the two-person maximum of $347 a month. But if SNAP rules changed to consider the full impact of the family’s high housing costs, this parent and child would receive more than $50 in additional SNAP benefits every month. 

A second idea: SNAP benefit levels could be based on the USDA Low-Cost Food Plan, instead of the more restrictive Thrifty Food Plan. The Thrifty Food Plan was designed for short-term emergency use, as the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) notes, and SNAP is generally the only place where the government uses it as a basis for people’s longer-term diets. Basing benefits on the Low-Cost Food Plan would give households more money, enabling SNAP benefits to be stretched to cover the full month and enabling people to purchase  healthier foods, which are often more expensive.

SNAP’s Heat and Eat provision is an important part of the nation’s nutrition safety net, but there is more that states and the federal government can do to make SNAP as effective as possible in allowing everyone to afford a healthy diet. Making these two policy changes would be a good start.

Stacy Cloyd

A Shameful Anniversary: Five Years, No Minimum Wage Increase

The Minimum Wage Leaves Families in Poverty
This Thursday is the five-year anniversary of the last time Congress raised the federal minimum wage. Despite growing worker productivity and ever-rising living costs, the minimum wage has been immobile at $7.25 an hour since July 2009. If the minimum wage had kept up with U.S. productivity growth since 1950, it would be $18.67 today.

Minimum wage workers and their families know that $7.25 an hour means life is little more than a daily struggle just to survive. A full-time, year-round minimum wage worker earns only $15,080 annually. This is well below the poverty line for a family of four ($23,850 in 2014), and only a fraction of what an American family of four actually needs to support even a modest standard of living (see the graphic above). Monthly costs for family of 4 in Topeka, Kansas

It’s simply not possible for one or even two adults working full-time for minimum wage to provide for their families’ basic needs. The graphic to the right provides a breakdown of what the Economic Policy Institute has calculated a worker living in a part of the country with average living costs (Topeka, Kansas in this example) needs to sustain a secure living for a family of four. 

In 2012, 10 million full-time workers in our country were paid poverty-level wages -- 28 percent of all full-time workers. Low-wage workers and their families are, by and large, the face of American poverty. If these 10 million workers had earned enough to put them over the poverty line – that is, the $23,850 figure, not the $63,364 to meet basic needs – there would have been 58 percent fewer families living in poverty.

Every American who works 40 hours each week should earn enough to keep her or his family out of poverty. There have been times in U.S. history when that principle was upheld. This week’s anniversary is nothing to celebrate. Instead, it reminds us once again that the time to resume honoring our country’s values of fairness and the work ethic is long ov
erdue.

Some Americans are raising awareness for the five-year anniversary by taking the Live the Wage Challenge--attempting to live on a minimum wage income for just one week. After housing costs and taxes, that's just $77 per week. You can read stories and find instructions for how to take the challenge at livethewage.com

Read the 2014 Hunger Report to learn more about the key role of the minimum wage in ending hunger in America. Also, check out Todd Post’s reflection on minimum wage myths and realities. Derek Schwabe

Visiting the Heartland's Hunger-Fighters

woman holding Bread for the World t-shirt and smiling
Women's Fund of Omaha Executive Director Michelle Zych shows support for Bread

In late June I traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to do interviews and site visits for the 2015 Hunger Report.  The most direct reason for choosing Omaha was so that I could attend a session of Ready to Run, a nationwide bipartisan campaign training program for women. The training was fantastic—dozens of women from various parts of the state and of different political orientations, all of whom care deeply about our government and believe in political engagement as a way of getting things done. There were state legislators, school board members, political consultants, press secretaries, and women who weren’t necessarily planning to run for office soon but were becoming more educated about the political process.  They will be campaign managers, donors, voters, and recruiters of candidates—all critical members of the political process. 

But Ready to Run wasn’t the only great part of the trip. I met with women—and a couple of men!—who work at the Women’s Fund of Omaha (which organizes Nebraska’s Ready to Run program), Coalition for a Strong Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center, Hunger-Free Heartland, OneWorld Community Health Centers, and RedBasket.  All are amazing organizations navigating their own political engagement while encouraging others to take action in their communities. Whether I was talking to a kid enjoying lunch from a mobile summer feeding truck, a member of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature, or a doctor who treats low-income patients, they all had ideas and experiences related to hunger and poverty—and how the federal government, with the help and involvement of states and localities, nonprofit groups, and motivated individuals—can help create a world where everyone has enough good food to eat.

I’m looking forward to the 2015 Hunger Report so we can tell lots of stories like the ones I gathered in Omaha, from the United States and around the world, about women’s ideas, energy, and efforts to create change. Women are becoming more empowered in government and every other facet of life, and that makes a big difference in the struggle to end hunger and poverty.

Stacy Cloyd

Heat and Eat: Lighting a Fire Under State Economies

Would you spend a dollar if you knew you’d get almost $23 in return?  That’s the question facing states because of the February 2014 farm bill, which changed the rules of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) policy called Heat and Eat. 

older man pays for groceries using a keypad
Don't make him choose between these groceries and his heating bill (photo: USDA)

Here’s how Heat and Eat works: utility costs are one of the factors used to determine how much SNAP a household is entitled to. States have a choice between using their participating households’ actual utility costs, or applying standard utility allowances (SUAs). Most states have opted for SUAs, which vary depending on which utility bills a household pays. Households that receive state assistance to help pay their utility bills automatically get the highest SUA available.  Sixteen states and the District of Columbia gave at least $1 in utility assistance to every household participating in SNAP. This cut states’ administrative expenses, since they didn’t need to verify individual household utility bills, and increased the benefits some households received.   

Under the new farm bill, however, households only qualify for the highest SUA if they get at least $20 a year in state utility assistance. This meant that some households would face cuts to their SNAP benefits unless their states gave them additional utility assistance. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the benefits of 850,000 households would be reduced by an average of $90 a month. But they didn’t break these numbers down by state. We apportioned those 850,000 households according to state-level Congressional Research Service data on how many households got the highest SUA because of energy assistance. (Remember, some households can qualify for the highest SUA by submitting their utility bills). We then adjusted the results to reflect more current data (December 2013) than SNAP caseloads from the year the Congressional Research Service used.

State

Affected households (estimate)

California

22,288

Connecticut

22,381

Delaware

1,989

District of Columbia

5,475

Maine

11,331

Massachusetts

44,984

Michigan

118,541

Montana

2,642

New Hampshire

6,971

New Jersey

77,616

New York

192,679

Oregon

16,450

Pennsylvania

140,280

Rhode Island

13,273

Vermont

6,178

Washington

91,388

Wisconsin

75,534

 To maintain Heat and Eat under the 2014 farm bill, some states will have to pay more per household than others. It depends on whether they give $20 in utility assistance to all households (thus simplifying the application and recertification process) or if they only give $20 to households that cannot otherwise prove that they qualify for the highest level of SUA. Changes in SNAP caseloads and the administrative costs of changing state SNAP policies will also affect costs, of course.

Our calculations show that the weighted average cost per household would be $69.76 a year, based on the costs announced by state leaders and the number of households we estimate would continue to receive help with their utility bills. This comes out to a $59.3 million cost for states to increase support to each of the estimated 850,000 households affected. But the CBO estimates that such an investment would maintain $800 million in SNAP benefits. Thus, for every dollar a state spends, it will receive $13.49 in federal SNAP benefits for its low-income families. The real impact is even better: because every dollar of SNAP generates about $1.70 of economic activity (one reason is that these funds are used right away in the local area), every dollar a state spends brings a return of $22.93! 

It’s not surprising that with this rate of return, leaders of several states and the District of Columbia announced plans to provide additional utility assistance to prevent cuts in benefits. (Not all have been passed by state legislatures yet). Below, we’ve created a downloadable table of states and their Heat and Eat plans. 

Download Heat and Eat Table

Even though paying for additional utility assistance is a good investment for states, it would be better if all households—regardless of the status of Heat and Eat policies or whether states choose to offer the program—received enough SNAP benefits to afford a healthy diet. 

Stacy Cloyd

Bright(er) Beginnings for America’s Homeless Children

Together with Hunger Report senior editor Todd Post, I recently visited Bright Beginnings, a childcare center for homeless families in Washington, DC. Our goal was to learn about how Bright Beginnings supports poor families as they strive for economic stability and about how federal government programs such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), WIC, and Head Start help make that possible. 

woman in the produce section of grocery store
Photo: Todd Post for Bread for the World

Our visit started in Bright Beginnings’ class for 3- and 4-year-olds, which receives educational funds from both the federal and District of Columbia governments. After some singing and dancing time, we watched as the children washed their hands and served themselves a family-style CACFP-funded lunch of fish sticks, coleslaw (“I found a carrot in my salad!” one girl exclaimed happily), whole-wheat bread, sliced apples, and milk. After more hand-washing, tooth-brushing, and plenty of soothing music, the children were tucked in for naps and we moved on to talk with some grownups. We met with several members of Bright Beginnings’ administrative staff and later accompanied a group of parents from Bright Beginnings’ WIC club on an educational shopping trip to a local supermarket. 

Our experiences will help inform the Institute’s 2015 Hunger Report, which focuses on women’s empowerment as a necessity to end hunger and poverty. Access to high-quality affordable child care is critical for parents—especially mothers—who want to enter or stay in the workforce while their kids are young. Bright Beginnings will also help us with our work on U.S. federal child nutrition programs, many of which will be reauthorized in 2015.

I’m excited for you to hear more about Bright Beginnings. It’s an organization that provides a tremendous level of services to families facing a lot of obstacles. It’s also an example of how nonprofit organizations can accomplish a great deal—but they work a lot better and can reach a lot more people when they participate in well-designed and well-funded government programs.

Stacy Cloyd

Data to End Hunger: Hacking for Women’s Empowerment

Data Do-Gooders Heading Photo

Bread for the World Institute is excited to announce our first live HelpMeViz Hunger Report hackathon event. On Saturday, June 28, the Institute, in partnership with the website HelpMeViz, will bring together coders, data scientists, and data visualizers in Washington, DC, as we tackle two data visualization challenges for our upcoming 2015 Hunger Report. The report, currently being drafted, explores why women’s empowerment is essential to ending global hunger. We hope to feature the visualizations developed at the event in the report, either in print or online at hungerreport.org.

HelpMeViz is a website open to anyone who is searching for feedback on visualization designs, from seasoned designers and data visualization specialists to individuals seeking to improve their graphic displays.  It offers an online community where all types of visualizations are welcome, including simple bar or single-line charts, full-blown infographics, and interactive visualizations.

Here are the visualization challenges that we will tackle:

Exposing Gaps in Data on Women’s Empowerment

Over the past few decades, we have learned a lot about the marginalization of women around the world and its costs to human development. Data authorities such as the World Bank and the United Nations have set out to develop holistic ways of measuring women’s empowerment and gender equality across countries, defining a minimum set of 52 indicators for doing so. But even the most advanced women’s empowerment indexes available today still miss critical elements of what it means for women to be empowered in the developing world. Far too many of the indicators that compose women’s empowerment indexes depend on largely unreliable, old, or inconsistent data for far too many countries. This significantly compromises the accuracy and integrity of the index and makes it much less reliable for policy makers who base decisions on it.

In our upcoming 2015 Hunger Report, Bread for the World Institute will identify key missing data in current women’s empowerment indexes and explain why better data are essential to continued progress. We’ll need help from hackathon volunteers to visualize where those gaping holes in the data lie.  

Women’s Empowerment and Stunting

Childhood stunting (far below average height for one’s age) is a condition that indicates long-term malnutrition. It currently affects one in four of the world's children. When a child is stunted, she is prevented from growing, learning, and later earning to her full potential. As we begin to explore years of data on women's empowerment from the World Bank and United Nations, we want to ask the question: Do countries that significantly improve the status of women also eventually see lower rates of stunting? Research from countries around the world has shown that when women are empowered to earn more and have a greater say in home finances, they are more likely than men to invest additional income in promoting the welfare of their children -- through nutritious food, for example. Are there data that support a relationship between women’s empowerment and improvements in stunting?

HelpMeViz Hunger Report Hackaton

Up to 25 guests will be invited to the HelpMeViz Hunger Report Hackathon. We will provide participants with the datasets, work space at Bread for the World’s offices, and breakfast and lunch during the event. Participants will also receive a printed copy of the 2015 Hunger Report when it is released, and an invitation to the report’s launch at the National Press Club in November, 2014.

The event will be blogged live on HelpMeViz. We hope that interested people all over the world will want to lend their voices and skills to these challenges. Data will be made available when the event begins, and visualizations, conversations, and comments will be posted to the site in real time.

If you would like to attend the event in Washington, DC, email HelpMeViz with a short paragraph that describes your interest and your skillset (statistics, programming, design, etc.) with the phrase “Bread for the World” in the subject line.

You can check out the most recent 2014 Hunger Report, complete with interactive stories and data, infographics, and featured stories online at hungerreport.org. Derek Schwabe

Highlights: “Hunger in the Age of Climate Change”

Bill Hohenstein and Katharine Hayhoe listen to Lewis Ziska's presentation
Photo: Joe Molieri/Bread for the World

The cost, availability, and nutritional content of foods are factors that affect hungry and poor people more than anyone else – and climate change is already changing these for the worse. That was the message of a May 14 panel hosted by Bread for the World Institute and the Alliance to End Hunger.

As we said earlier this month in Institute Notes, the new National Climate Assessment details the impacts of climate change in the United States. 

At the panel discussion, one of the report’s lead authors, climate scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe, explained the science of climate change briefly and noted that the world’s poorest countries and people, who are already suffering the most, will continue to be most vulnerable even as climate change begins to affect everyone.

Two scientists from USDA presented their findings. William Hohenstein (whose father John was a Bread for the World board member in the 1980s!) explained that food availability, access, utilization, and stability are all challenged by rising temperatures and by more frequent droughts and other extreme weather. Lewis Ziska described how rising C02 levels could lead to more food spoilage and contamination; for example, he said, pesticides could become less effective. However, both scientists expressed some hope for the future, with Hohenstein describing new agricultural technologies and Ziska emphasizing the potential benefits of better educating and empowering women and girls (the focus of the Institute’s next Hunger Report, to be released in November 2014). 

Sam Myers of Harvard University discussed his research team’s findings that many crops have less protein, zinc, and iron when they are grown in air with higher CO2 concentrations. This may mean that as CO2 rises in Earth’s atmosphere, people will need different amounts and types of food to maintain good health. Finally, Margaret Wilder of the University of Arizona described her work discussing climate change with low-income people in Arizona. Climate change is already making life harder for many Americans struggling to pay higher utility bills, facing a greater risk of asthma and heat-related illness, and noticing that farmers are donating less of their surplus crops to food pantries. As one person interviewed put it, “If it's a matter of feeding my kids and my health, then climate becomes a real issue instead of being an abstract, out-there concept.”

 You can listen to the whole discussion and see the slides online here. Bread for the World continues to work to draw attention to the disproportionate effect of climate change on hungry and poor people. This very well-attended event is a gauge of advocates’ increasing awareness that as the global community seeks ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change, we must ensure that the special needs of developing countries and low-income Americans are kept high on the agenda.

 

Stacy Cloyd

Constructive Approaches to Achieving Shared Development Goals

Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-OH) speech earlier this month at the American Enterprise Institute advocated constructive conservatism, which he described as an approach to ending poverty that relies on data-driven, evidence-based solutions. Media in his home state of Ohio called the talk Portman’s “anti-poverty coming out speech.”

US Capitol Building seen through a field of red and purple tulips
Architect of the Capitol

The speech offered plenty of room for debate. While there is support across the political spectrum for responding to the country’s drug addiction problem with treatment rather than incarceration, a key part of the senator’s speech, Portman also opposes raising the federal minimum wage, in contrast to Bread’s position.

But looking at the bigger picture, the idea of “constructive conservatism” deserves attention from hunger advocates. Collecting data and evaluating evidence of the effectiveness of various anti-poverty programs—and then scaling up the best-performing programs to achieve national targets for reducing poverty—may seem like no more than common sense. But many of Sen. Portman’s colleagues in Congress oppose this approach, as AEI president Arthur Brooks noted after the speech. Since they do not agree that the federal government should fund a safety net at all, they consistently vote to cut spending on anti-poverty programs. So far, we have not heard much from these decision makers about the impact in the future of reducing national anti-poverty efforts now. 

“Constructive conservatism” could be an alternative that does indeed foster progress against poverty. In the hunger policy community, we know that setting and striving toward goals on reducing poverty works. Back in 2000, when the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by nearly 200 countries, many leaders and experts thought that the targets were strikingly ambitious, if not outright unreachable. Cut hunger in half within 15 years? Ensure universal access to primary education? But today, the evidence shows that the world is on track to meet nearly all of the MDGs by their deadline, December 2015.

In fact, the MDG effort has been so successful that the world is now setting new, post-2015 development goals. As Bread for the World participates in the global process of determining just what those goals should be, we are hopeful that the goals will apply universally – to all countries.

Such universality would support the United States in establishing hunger and poverty as priority problems and in tracking our progress. It could also help bring together Americans from across the political spectrum who support constructive efforts to reduce poverty -- to put effective solutions in place. 

Stacy Cloyd

Climate Change is Happening, and It’s a Hunger Issue

field with old barn and newly planted crops under blue sky
photo by Frederic Rivollier

Climate change is big news this week. The National Climate Assessment, released on May 6, found definitively that human activities have already changed the climate of the United States and continue to do so. The effects are not the same everywhere: some parts of the country will get drier, others wetter. Temperature will increase more in some regions than others. However, the nation as a whole will experience more severe weather events, and changes in the climate will affect every industry and every person.

Climate change influences how much food is grown, where it’s grown, and the nutritional quality of crops. All of these, of course, matter to efforts to end hunger. So do the economic and health-related implications of climate change. That’s why Bread for the World Institute and the Alliance to End Hunger are co-sponsoring a panel on May 14 to discuss Hunger in the Age of Climate Change. Panelists come from academia, advocacy organizations, and the federal government. They include Katharine Hayhoe, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Register to attend the event today, or sign up for the webinar version if you live further away. 

And if the Bread/Alliance event makes you want to learn even more about climate change and food security, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Global Food Security Symposium on May 22 is on “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of Weather Volatility and Climate Change.” It’s by invitation only, but everyone can follow along on Twitter @globalagdev and #globalag.

As Bread for the World has said for a long time now, climate change disproportionately affects poor countries and poor people. We cannot reduce hunger and poverty without finding ways of coping with climate change. This is why we are excited to see more discussion of how we can all reduce activities that contribute to destructive climate change effects and adapt to the changes that have already come.  

Stacy Cloyd

Success in Fighting Hunger: Community Eligibility Brings Kids to the Table

Three children holding cafeteria trays with cafeteria employee smiling at them.
photo credit: USDA

The USDA has a program that enables more low-income children to eat breakfast and lunch at school while also cutting down on paperwork. It’s called community eligibility. Starting in the 2014-2015 school year, all states will be able to participate – thus expanding its success.

Community eligibility is designed to help areas that have many children in high-need situations. This report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research and Action Center explains clearly how the program works. Community eligibility allows a school to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, rather than requiring each family to prove that their children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. A school, cluster of schools, or school district is allowed to use community eligibility if at least 40 percent of its students are in “identified” high-need categories, such as being homeless, living in foster care, or belonging to a household that participates in SNAP or TANF. Since many students qualify for free meals but don’t fall into an identified student category, the school multiplies its identified student percentage by 1.6 to calculate the proportion of school meals for which USDA will reimburse it. 

Since the community eligibility program began in 2010, states have been added slowly. As USDA notes, community eligibility eliminates the need for schools to process applications and collect meal payments from individual students; offering all kids the same food also reduces any stigma associated with free and reduced meals. Community eligibility gives families with household incomes just slightly above the threshold for free or reduced meals a little more flexibility in their budgets. And kids who have always been eligible for free school meals, but whose parents did not fill out the forms — due to low literacy, fear that they will be exposed as undocumented immigrants, embarrassment, and/or a combination of these and other reasons — are able to eat with their classmates.

Of course that’s important to every child as an individual. It’s also important at the school level, because school meals lead to better academic performance. School breakfast – even when compared to breakfast at home – is associated with  better performance on standardized tests, lower obesity rates, and consumption of a wider range of healthy foods. Students who eat breakfast at school also have an average of 1.5 fewer days absent each year. 

Starting this fall, schools in all states can participate in the community eligibility program. States will release lists of qualifying schools by May 1 (many lists are already available here), and districts have until June 30 to decide whether they’d like to participate. Given the success community eligibility has enjoyed in schools that have already tried it, we expect that a lot more low-income kids will be enjoying breakfasts and lunches with their classmates next school year.  

Stacy Cloyd

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