January 27, 2011

Federal Nutrition Programs 101

This post is the second in a series from Bread for the City intern Allison Burket exploring the basics of food, hunger, and politics in the District.

As I explored in my previous post, hunger and food insecurity are realities for a startling number of DC residents. Not surprisingly, the ranks have grown in the wake of our economic crisis, and our federal safety net has played an essential part in making sure families can put food on the table during tough times. For that reason, an important piece of building a more food secure DC is making sure eligible DC residents are accessing these programs and that those participants have healthy and affordable options within reach.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the food stamp program, provides food assistance to low-income households across the country. Families and individuals receive monthly benefits on an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card that acts like a debit card and can be used in most grocery stores and retailers to buy food items (excluding alcoholic beverages, household supplies, and prepared meals).

By far the largest of the federal nutrition programs, over 42.9 million Americans received benefits in September 2010, including 128,759 in the District, with average monthly benefits of about $100 per person or about $227 per household around the country. Until recently, all families and individuals with less than 130% of the poverty level in monthly income could apply, as long as they had less than $2,000 in their bank account. “The Food Stamp Expansion Act,” implemented last spring, raised eligibility for DC residents to 200% of the poverty level ($21,600 a year for a one-person household and $44,100 a year for a household of four) and eliminated the $2,000 asset cap. (To apply for SNAP in DC, visit your nearest Income Maintenance Administration office. To find out which service center to go to, call 202-698-3900.)

Healthy Affordable Food For All: DC Food Finder
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Several federal programs focus on ensuring that children receive the nutrition they need to support healthy growth, brain development, and eating habits for life. First, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (commonly known as WIC), is a preventative program designed to ensure adequate and consistent nutrition for pregnant women, new mothers, babies and children up to age 5. Participants (17,000 in the District this month) receive vouchers through local WIC clinics to buy healthy foods. Nutritional counseling, health screening and referrals, and other nutrition services are available at local clinics through this program. WIC is funded federally and administered locally through the Community Health Administration of the DC Department of Health.

Millions of kids elementary age and older count on meals served in school as their most reliable daily meal. The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs are another pair of federally funded child nutrition programs designed to ensure students have enough food in their bellies to focus and thrive at school. Through the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), schools are reimbursed for offering meal options that meet certain federal nutrition standards. Participating schools are required to offer free and reduced-price meals to low-income children and to implement wellness policies that promote healthy school environments. These requirements and federal nutrition standards were recently updated as part of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which also added 6 cents per meal to the level of funding schools receive. In DC, the groundbreaking Healthy Schools Act takes a number of steps to promote better school meals - offering free school breakfast for all students, incentivizing healthier meals, supporting farm to school programs, and more.

Kids can also receive meals at child care and child development centers through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). In DC, all child development centers must serve snacks and supper options that meet certain meal quality standards, or must require that families bring meals that comply with those standards. The CACFP program also funds meals for elderly or functionally-impaired adults at adult care centers.

Beyond CACFP, a collection of additional programs support seniors and persons with disabilities. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides eligible seniors with a monthly food package, and the Senior Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) offers eligible seniors $30 in coupons to purchase fresh fruits and veggies at farmer’s markets. Other programs such as Meals with Friends, which offers group meals for seniors at local wellness centers, and Homebound Meals are DC-specific programs administered by the DC Office on Aging.

Beyond the Benefits

The good news for the District is that not only do these federal benefits protect families from the detrimental impacts of hunger and undernutrition, but they bring in funds that then recirculate in DC’s economy. According to Moody's Analytics, every $1 of SNAP benefits spent in the community generates $1.85 in local economic activity. Unfortunately, this means when eligible households are not receiving their entitled benefits, DC misses out twice. As of fall 2009, approximately 18,500 eligible individuals were not enrolled in SNAP. For some, language access is a barrier; many others don’t know that they are eligible, have trouble navigating IMA, or don’t think the benefits are worth the time it takes to apply and recertify.

Ensuring sufficient access to these programs is the work of organizations like DC Hunger Solutions, whose report How to Get Food in DC outlines in plain language who is eligible for what program and what you have to do to apply. (DC Hunger Solutions also provides print copies of this report - call (202) 986-2200 ext. 3041) The DC Food Finder, a project of several different organizations, includes information on how and where to access and apply for your federal benefits, as well as a searchable map of affordable food options.

Making sure these federal programs guarantee access to healthy and nutritious foods is another story, however. Are the meals that are served truly healthy and nutritious? Can SNAP and WIC benefits be used at farmers markets and grocery stores? How can the DC government improve these programs? Where do we start administratively or legislatively to support a food secure DC? Join me next time to find out!


Lynn Woes said...

I'm often here news stories from major news stations saying due to the economy record numbers of people are getting on public assistance. Seems to me like new regulations making it easier to qualify are playing a pretty big role too but we don't here about that as much.

Brennan said...

Hi Allison,

My name's Brennan, and I work on digital outreach at Catholic Charities right down the street.

Love where you're going right at the end. I'd like to see greater flexibility for individuals on SNAP when they purchase food items. While most grocery stores carry fresh vegetables, these vegetables have to be shipped--sometimes from hundreds of miles away. That means crucial nutrients have already been destroyed. Access to fresh markets or farmers markets would ensure that these individuals can find healthier foods and prepare healthier meals. Look forward to reading the next part of your series.