Health & Human Services

State Anti-Hunger Efforts Limited without Federal Support

Americans are hungrier now than they've been in generations. Some states are fighting it, but they can only do so much with a Congress committed to cutting budgets.
by | March 2014
 

Amy Blakley was a little worried about the mess. A first-grade teacher at Davis Elementary in Shannon Hills, Ark., just southwest of Little Rock, Blakley was eager to implement a new “breakfast in the classroom” plan. The school had long offered breakfast in the cafeteria for students from low-income households. But the new program, which launched at Davis this past fall, uses state and federal funds to pay for universal free breakfast in the classroom. “I was really excited,” says Blakley, “but I’m also thinking, ‘How am I going to get these kids fed and clean up and still do what I need to do as a teacher?’”

Like educators in classrooms all over the country, Blakley had seen firsthand the problems of childhood hunger. Kids would arrive hungry, complaining of headaches and having a hard time focusing. Sometimes they’d steal from other students’ trays at lunch. Blakley says she’d always been aware of the issue. “But it seemed to escalate over the past two or three years,” as more and more students arrived without having had enough to eat.

Every school day since last fall, kids at Davis file into class, grab a juice or milk and a fresh piece of fruit, and are served a hot breakfast—blueberry waffles, say, or sausage biscuits. When they’re done eating, they start reading their lessons for the day. “The whole thing takes 20 minutes,” says Blakley. “It’s extremely smooth. After the first morning, I knew it was going to be a success.”

Serving breakfast in the classroom instead of the cafeteria may not seem like a monumental shift in policy. But the switch has made food more accessible to more students, and that’s had an almost immediate impact. “Office visits have decreased,” Davis nurse Barbie McDaniel reported in November. “I used to have children complaining of feeling bad, headaches and tummy issues as soon as many arrived at school.”

Schools all over Arkansas are experimenting with new ways to serve breakfast—in the classroom, at grab-and-go kiosks, a “second chance” breakfast served after first period that even tardy students have the opportunity to eat. The idea is to make sure that kids who are eligible for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s free and reduced lunch program have additional access to a free healthy breakfast, which is also funded by the USDA. Nationwide, fewer eligible students take advantage of free breakfast than free lunch: There’s more of a stigma attached to it, and bus and classroom schedules can make it difficult for students to eat in the cafeteria before school starts. In Arkansas, tweaks to how and when the morning meal is served have helped move the number of eligible students who avail themselves of free breakfast from 54 percent in 2010 to a projected 60 percent by the end of this school year.

A 6 percentage-point increase over four years may be a modest win. But in Arkansas, every little bit helps. By many measures, the state ranks among the nation’s worst in terms of hunger. Five years ago, Arkansas was dead last in “food security,” a measure used by the USDA to gauge a household’s ability to feed itself. That meant that one in five Arkansas households was unable to put adequate food on the table at times during that year. The state also routinely ranks worst for “very low food security,” another USDA figure that assesses extremely severe hunger. Arkansas was worst for childhood hunger and worst for senior hunger. In one survey from a couple of years ago, 73 percent of Arkansas teachers said they had students who regularly showed up to school hungry—many of whom hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before.

The statistics in Arkansas sound extreme, but they’re not that different from the numbers in many other states across the country. Hunger in America is on the increase again in urban cores, suburban neighborhoods and rural areas alike. Hunger is, essentially, a symptom of poverty, and as the wealth gap has widened in recent years, the problem of food insecurity has worsened. The Great Recession brought the issue into stark relief: In the first decade of this century, food-insecurity rates rose in 41 states. The numbers stayed roughly flat in nine states; no state saw a decrease in food insecurity.

Even as the economy has begun to recover in recent years, the problem of hunger has stubbornly continued to grow, partly a reflection of the continued sluggish job market. Food-insecurity rates spiked to an all-time national high in 2008 and have remained essentially unchanged in the years since. One in five children now lives in a household that experiences food insecurity. That’s had a big impact on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. Last year nearly 47 million Americans—one out of every seven people in the country—received SNAP benefits at some point, a record high.

That has also impacted local emergency kitchens and food pantries. According to the United States Conference of Mayors, which publishes an annual Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness, the number of people seeking emergency food assistance from cities is still on the rise. In the most recent report, released in December, 83 percent of the cities surveyed said that the already high numbers of food-assistance requests rose even higher last year, an average increase of 7 percent. In two-thirds of the cities, facilities had to turn people away due to lack of resources.

Now, anti-hunger advocates say, the federal government is making things worse. They charge that congressional budget cuts to SNAP, the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, will exacerbate the country’s hunger problem and place a greater burden on states and localities. Proponents of the cuts respond that the program has become bloated and perpetuates a “welfare state” of millions of Americans relying on federal handouts. Reducing or eliminating food-assistance benefits, these critics argue, will help encourage low-income people to become more self-sufficient.

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, the nation has never been more divided on how to address the needs of low-income Americans. It’s a schism that’s playing out at all levels of government. Some states in recent months have enacted stricter limits on food assistance, curtailing benefits and eligibility. But a handful of state leaders have been working to raise the profile of hunger as an issue that must be addressed head on. In a small but growing number of states, including Arkansas, governors and legislators have made ending hunger—especially among children—a key focus. They’re reorganizing to better coordinate with nonprofits and food-assistance groups. They’re directing more resources to school breakfasts and summer meal programs. They’re streamlining state processes to better identify individuals and families that qualify for federal help. Most of all, they’ve brought the issue to the political surface.

When John F. Kennedy took office as president in 1961, his first executive order called for expanded food distribution; two weeks later he announced the creation of new pilot programs for food stamps. By January 1964, when President Johnson announced his War on Poverty, the food stamps pilot had expanded to 40 counties and three cities in 22 states, serving 380,000 people. That August, Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act, which set up the permanent national program that exists today.

For a long time, food stamps and the national school lunch program (which began in 1946) enjoyed bipartisan support. Addressing poverty and hunger—and expanding federal programs to do it—was a key issue for political leaders on both sides of the aisle. President Nixon called the nation’s hunger problem “embarrassing and intolerable,” and in 1969 he convened the first-ever (and still the only) White House conference on hunger and nutrition. In the 1970s, Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas became an ardent anti-hunger advocate, working with Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota to pass legislation that strengthened the food stamps program and made it more accessible. At the state level, Republican governors such as Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan and George Pataki of New York eagerly promoted food stamps. President George W. Bush was also an avid SNAP supporter; spending on the program doubled during his time in office.

To be sure, there were fights and cuts along the way. The Reagan administration pushed through cutbacks in the early 1980s. In the mid-1990s, congressional Republicans enacted cuts in benefits and eligibility that they felt dovetailed with President Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Some states set up onerous registration processes (such as requiring applicants to register one day and then return the following day to pick up an application) or enrollment strictures (such as fingerprinting) that dissuaded some people from signing up for benefits.

Source: USDA Economic Research Service

But by the first decade of this century, after the Clinton-era welfare reforms had ended direct federal assistance for millions of Americans, many government leaders saw food stamps as a vital remaining way to provide help to the working poor. The 2009 federal stimulus added $45 billion to the SNAP program to help offset the recession, temporarily increasing average monthly benefits by about 20 percent. Just four years ago, in 2010, a New York Times article declared that the “once stigmatized” program now had gained nationwide acceptance: “After a U-turn in the politics of poverty,” the paper reported, “food stamps, a program once scorned as ‘welfare,’ enjoys broad new support.”

A lot has changed in the past four years. As SNAP participation and spending have swelled since the Great Recession, and as Tea Party conservatives have pushed for reduced federal spending generally, food stamps have increasingly become a target for budget cutters. Last year House Republicans voted to cut SNAP funding by $39 billion over 10 years. Such a cut would have denied SNAP benefits to 3.8 million low-income people in the first year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and to an average of 3 million people a year over the next decade. Democrats in the Senate favored a $4 billion reduction.

While Congress was still debating those cuts, an entirely different set of SNAP reductions went into effect last fall. The temporary stimulus boost in benefits had originally been slated to end in September 2014. But in 2010 Congress decided to accelerate that cutoff to Oct. 31, 2013, to free up the funds for other programs. As a result, on Nov. 1, $5 billion in cuts took effect (another $6 billion will take effect in fiscal 2015 and 2016). For the first time since the food stamp program began, every single participant saw a decrease in monthly benefits. For a family of four, the cuts will mean about $36 less a month to spend on groceries. The anti-hunger community decried the move: The economy hadn’t recovered enough yet, they argued, and those cuts will hurt low-income families that are still struggling to pay for food.

Last month brought another round of cuts: In passing a farm bill, which includes federal nutrition programs, Congress approved $8 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade. Those savings will come from closing what many say had become a loophole for boosting SNAP benefits. Some states had determined that families who received assistance through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, should automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits. The idea, known as “heat and eat,” was sanctioned in 17 states. But in some cases, state social workers would sign up families for a nominal LIHEAP benefit—sometimes as low as $1—simply to give them additional food assistance. The compromise farm bill puts an end to that. Critics said “heat and eat” was akin to gaming the system, and even some poverty advocates found it hard to justify. “Congress did not intend for states to stretch the benefit rules this way,” Robert Greenstein, president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told The Wall Street Journal in January, “and longstanding [food stamp] supporters like myself find it difficult to defend.”

Still, many anti-hunger advocates see the November stimulus cutoff and the farm bill changes to SNAP as a one-two punch amounting to $19 billion in cuts to the most widespread and most effective program in the country for addressing hunger. And they balk at the notion that reducing federal nutrition assistance will help encourage low-income people to become more financially independent. “That’s like saying the best way to reduce drought is to take away water,” says Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Source: USDA Economic Research Service

As the conversation over hunger has heated up in Washington, a similar split has been playing out in the states. Last year Kansas and Oklahoma passed legislation requiring that able-bodied adults who receive SNAP benefits must find a job or enroll in job training—or lose their benefits. (Federal law limits benefits to three months for able-bodied out-of-work adults, but states can waive that limit during times of high unemployment. Until last year, such waivers were in place in 44 states.) In Kansas, the expiring waiver affected some 20,000 SNAP recipients, about 6 percent of the people in the state food stamps program. In January, Ohio enacted a similar work requirement, and Wisconsin will let its waiver lapse this summer.

But then there’s Arkansas. Along with a few other states, Arkansas has made a concerted effort to address its high rates of food insecurity, elevating the fight against hunger and actively working to help low-income people access government assistance programs. In 2010, after the national USDA rankings made it clear that the state’s hunger problems were getting worse, Gov. Mike Beebe launched the Arkansas No Kid Hungry Campaign, a partnership between the government, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance (which includes all the food banks in the state) and Share Our Strength, a national organization focused on ending childhood hunger in America. “Hungry children have a tougher time learning, meaning that hunger threatens our biggest obligation as a state: the education of our children,” Beebe said in announcing the program.

Since then, Arkansas has made inroads into its hunger needs. In addition to the increasing number of students participating in school breakfast, there’s been an uptick in the number of eligible students accessing free after-school supper, from 1 percent in 2011 (the first year Congress allowed every state to offer a school supper program) to 4 percent this year. More Arkansas children are accessing summer meals, from 10 percent of eligible students in 2010 to a predicted 17 percent this year. Summer meal programs can be particularly tricky to operate, because they require a greater network of volunteers, churches, community centers and some still-open schools in order to provide food to children. In summer 2012, Arkansas served 2.6 million meals to low-income kids; the next summer, that figure was 4 million.

But the biggest impact of Beebe’s campaign has been coordination. The state convenes regular meetings of anti-hunger stakeholders, including the state departments of education and human resources, nonprofits, food banks and corporate supporters such as Walmart and Tyson Foods. Before, says Harriett Phillips, the woman Beebe charged with overseeing the No Kid Hungry effort, “everybody was kind of doing their own thing. There was nobody really in charge. There’s now the real understanding that we’re not working alone on this.”

Other states in recent years have also made it easier for residents to access assistance programs. Many have streamlined the process for determining eligibility. Over the past decade, nearly every jurisdiction that required fingerprinting for SNAP participants has done away with that provision. (California, Texas and New York City have ended the practice since 2011; today only Arizona requires fingerprint identification for enrollees.) Maine, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have made strides in providing summer meals. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is also implementing Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry strategy. In December, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the formation of an Anti-Hunger Task Force of experts and advocates. (Full disclosure: My husband works for Share Our Strength.)

No governor has done more to raise the issue of hunger than Maryland’s Martin O’Malley. Maryland is the richest state in the country, with three of the nation’s wealthiest counties. But it still faces a food-insecurity rate of 13 percent. In 2008, O’Malley became the first state leader to publicly commit to eradicating childhood hunger, and he has made it one of the 16 formally established goals of his StateStat program, meaning performance data are constantly tracked and updated on the state’s website. In the five-plus years since O’Malley launched the effort, Maryland’s school breakfast participation rate has increased by 37 percent; its school lunch rate has risen by 56 percent. The governor frequently talks about hunger in his speeches, including his recent State of the State address.

What’s really attractive to the program managers in Arkansas and Maryland is that the benefits themselves are funded by the federal government. For that reason, however, state efforts to boost participation can be a bit of a double-edged sword. The more successful they are at getting eligible individuals connected to federal assistance, the bigger and more expensive those federal programs grow. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that two-thirds of the recent national increase in the number of people receiving SNAP benefits is attributable to the tough economy. The other third is from states working to enroll more people. If states become more adept at identifying and processing eligible individuals—if the programs in Arkansas and Maryland and elsewhere do become more widespread—there will almost certainly be bigger fights in Congress over the future of funding the fight against hunger.

The simplest thing about the anti-hunger effort is that there’s a very straightforward way to address it: Feed people who are hungry. Whether through school meals, emergency food banks or vouchers like SNAP, it’s a problem with a very identifiable solution—not an easy solution to bring about, but a simple one to grasp.

What those efforts fail to do is address the root causes of poverty and hunger. And that’s a whole lot harder. “You can mitigate hunger without addressing poverty,” says Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But there can be more comprehensive solutions that don’t just involve the federal nutritional programs.” She applauds state efforts to increase participation. But she says there’s a necessary next step: a commitment to tackling the issues of inequality that cause hunger in the first place. “We certainly don’t want governors thinking, ‘If I just pull lever X and lever Y, I’ll solve childhood hunger.’” It’s more complicated than that.

“States really can be laboratories of food democracy,” says New York City’s Berg. “I think it’s great what some of the governors are doing.” But right now, he adds, “they’re just going to continue to be outgunned by the size of the federal cuts.”

Source: USDA Source: USDA

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