Fighting Food Insecurity and Activating Civil Society
Food insecurity is an eating pattern in which the intake of food is less than what a healthy person needs or one in which lack of resources causes repeated cycles of disrupted eating. Two subcategories are low food security in which there may be a sufficient quantity of food, but the food is lacking in quality, variety or level of acceptability. The other subcategory is very low food security in which households experience repeated episodes of disrupted eating as well as less than adequate intake. (Definitions, 2015)
There are ten indicators used by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to identify food insecurity: worrying about or actually experiencing food running out before there is money to buy more, an inability to afford balanced eating, cutting or skipping meals, cutting or skipping meals more than three months out of the year, eating less than what is needed, experiencing hunger but having no money to buy food, experiencing unintended weight loss, not eating for an entire day and not eating for an entire day more than three months out of the year. Homes answering yes to six or more of these conditions are at very low food security. 66% of people surveyed responded affirmatively to seven of the indicators. (Definitions, 2015)
The strongest predictor of food insecurity is income. Almost 60% of food insecure homes are at an income level below the federal poverty line. Food insecurity affects people across the board regardless of household type, race or place of residence. Some groups are proportionally more affected than others. For instance, while only 8% of the total food insecure population are from homes with multiple adults and no children, 27% of the group of homes with multiple adults and no children are food insecure. 20% of the total food insecure population are from single-mother homes and 4% are from single-father homes, yet 31.6% of the group of single-mother homes and 21.7% of the group of single-father homes are food insecure. Following the same principle, White non-Hispanics make up half of the food insecure population, but Hispanics and Black non-Hispanics are groups more likely to be food insecure than whites. While cities and rural areas have the highest percentages of food insecure homes, other residential categories are still in double digits. (Coleman-Jensen, A. et al, 2017)
The significance of these data is that while there are some groups who are more likely to need targeted assistance, there is no single face of food insecurity. Making assumptions may be prejudiced and ignores the widespread severity of the problem.
A white paper by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) linked food insecurity with poverty and found that together they negatively affect nutrition and contribute to obesity and chronic disease. Adults were more likely to forgo medical care and medical foods; take their medications less often than they should; be admitted to emergency departments more often; purchase cheaper, less nutritious, energy-dense foods; or water down infant formula to make it last longer. Children from food insecure homes are especially at risk for dental caries, recurrent illnesses, accidental injuries, frequent hospitalizations, emotional and behavioral problems, poor growth, developmental delays, learning disabilities and a lifetime of struggles that perpetuate the cycle of food insecurity. (Health and hunger, 2017)
The USDA Food and Nutrition Service administers food distribution programs, child nutrition programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). (Programs, 2018) Such programs fall into the category of entitlements, which are federal programs requiring payments to people who meet eligibility criteria. (Entitlement, 2018) Some entitlements are in place to combat food insecurity. Entitlements may be enacted by passage of legislation that funds mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (What is the difference, 2018) The Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), SNAP and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) are some entitlements under the House Farm Bill which is up for renewal every five years, including this year. During such time, criteria that determine eligibility, program access, benefit levels and other rules can be changed by a majority vote of the legislature. (Supplemental nutrition, 2018)
The federal government pays 100% of SNAP benefits, and administrative costs are shared equally between the federal government and the states. (Supplemental nutrition, 2018) Another way of funding entitlements is from discretionary spending which relies on an annual appropriations process by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. This type of entitlement is less permanent and can be affected by the political agenda of the legislature. There are funding limits, and everyone who is eligible may not be able to receive benefits. WIC is one such entitlement program which operates by federal grants to states that may or may not contribute funds each year, even though historically they have. (What is the difference, 2018)
Entitlement Programs Used for Supermom Project
For our term project, we chose a Hispanic family who lives in Elmhurst/Corona, Queens because this neighborhood has a large Hispanic population (more than 50%) who also have a high share of the neighborhood’s poverty level (36%). (About Elmhurst and South Corona, 2016) In addition to making use of church and community food pantries, members of our case study family were eligible for various food assistance programs.
The WIC program is for low-income women who have recently had a baby, are pregnant or are breastfeeding, or children up to age five. With her WIC benefits, Supermom (as I named her) can obtain a limited amount of nutritious foods from all five food groups, including whole grains, dairy, eggs, fruit, vegetables, canned beans and canned salmon, and infant cereal, fruits, vegetables and meat for her nine-month-old son. As an exclusively breastfeeding mom she will receive a higher allotment for fruits and vegetables as well as a higher quantity of eggs, milk and other foods than partially or non-breastfeeding moms. (Mom and baby, 2008) Thanks to the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), WIC checks can be used just like cash to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets, however no change is given. (WIC Farmers Market, 2017)
The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides a monthly food package for seniors age 60 and over with household income at or below 130 percent of poverty guidelines who reside in the state of distribution. (Apply for CSFP, 2017) The grandmother in Supermom’s family is eligible to receive this benefit and a monthly package may be picked up from Kings County Hospital Center in Jamaica, Queens, which may present a challenge depending on the mobility of the family. CSFP provides cheese, and dried or canned foods from the five food groups. The form in which foods are provided such as canned vegetables, canned fruits and canned proteins will be less likely to cause a foodborne illness, which is a special concern for older adults, and easier to chew and swallow with the grandmother’s ill-fitting dentures. However, processed canned foods may have higher than desirable sodium or sugar content. Older adults also need more fiber, vitamins and antioxidants and the canned and processed choices available in this program may not meet those needs. The quantity of foods provides enough MyPlate equivalent servings for a woman age 51 or older for approximately five days.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides low-income individuals and families with money to buy foods from all five food groups. (Supplemental nutrition, 2018) Supermom’s entire family qualifies for this benefit and receives a total allotment of $31 per day. Each of the foods on our team’s one-day menu could have been obtained through SNAP even though we started with free sources first. An obvious challenge with SNAP is that a family of six must buy a day’s worth of food for $5.17 each. An equally significant challenge is related to the FDA’s classification of food, which does not distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods. If the person doing the food shopping is not educated in making healthy choices, SNAP benefits could be used to purchase soft drinks, candy, chips, cookies and other unhealthy junk foods. One great benefit of SNAP is that recipients can buy more at the farmers’ market with their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. For every $5 Supermom spends using her EBT card to buy fruits and vegetables, she can get a $2 Health Bucks coupon, which increases her purchase power. If Supermom spent her entire daily SNAP allotment at the farmers’ market, she would increase her total allowance from $31 to $43.
The National School Lunch (National School Lunch, 2018) and Breakfast (School Breakfast, 2018) programs and Summer Food Service program (Summer Food, 2017) provide nutritionally-balanced breakfast and lunches Monday through Friday to school-age children from kindergarten through 12th grade. Some sites can apply for afterschool snacks and Saturday meals. In New York City, these programs are now completely free and are available to Supermom’s 14-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. Offered are fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meats and meat alternatives, fat-free and low-fat milk and water. Starches, saturated fats, high fructose corn syrup and sodium are limited and there are no trans fats. This program did not play a role in our team’s menu planning because it was a weekend, but with two children these programs are a life saver for Supermom’s family. (Breakfast and lunch, 2013)
The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) provides checks worth $20 to seniors age 60 and over with household income at or below 130 percent of poverty guidelines who reside in the state of issuance. Checks are used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. Usually, checks are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis by community groups and senior centers. Seniors must contact the local Department of Aging who will determine eligibility and provide information on where to get checks. This program did not play a role in our team’s one-day menu, but it would be helpful at other times. (Senior Farmer’s Market, 2015)
Our team’s one-day menu was planned with the luxury of not having to think about the rest of the month, but this type of eating pattern would not be sustainable for an entire month using only one program. For instance, the WIC limitation of two dozen eggs and 144 ounces of juice means that using just WIC, Supermom’s family could only eat one egg per day each on fewer than five days a month and drink four ounces of orange juice per day each on only seven days of the month. The family would have to rely on the other programs and food pantries to supplement their foods and find creative ways to make their meals stretch; they would unlikely have all their preferred foods. Food pantry foods are often processed and canned, and heavy reliance upon such items may contribute to higher sodium and sugar intake and fewer nutrients and fiber than what a healthy diet needs.
Tips for Low-Cost Healthy Eating
There are many ways to plan healthy, affordable meals. Here are some of my suggestions:
- Go to the farmers’ market at the end of the day. Farmers hate to bring unsold produce back to the farm and are often more willing to give you a deal or throw in some extra produce for free.
- Try new ways of using meats, poultry and fish. Buy less desirable cuts of meat which are usually cheaper and can be very tender when slow cooked. Remove the skin from poultry at home instead of buying it skinless. Save all your bones for making soups and stews. Buy fish whole and use parts you do not normally eat (heads and bones) for making fish stock. Also, try organ meats, which tend to cost less than the traditional parts of the animal.
- Plan on a leftover soup night! Start by making a pureed vegetable soup – pumpkin, carrot, butternut squash, broccoli or asparagus are my favorites. Make enough for a first meal and some to freeze for another meal. When you are staring at miscellaneous containers of leftovers and are not sure what to do with them, pull out the soup and let each family member use the leftovers to customize their toppings. It’s a fun way to extend meals and prevent food waste. You can also repurpose leftovers by putting them on pasta, rice, baked potatoes, omelets, pizza or stuffed into grilled cheese sandwiches.
- Add more whole grains and fiber to your diet. If they have been washed, the peels of vegetables and fruits are edible and contain a lot of nutrients and fiber but are too often thrown away. You can usually find a sale on canned beans. They have a lot of fiber and nutrients and are easily incorporated into many recipes. Rinse canned beans to remove extra sodium.
- Bake (and cook) at home. Baking your own breads, muffins and pizza crusts is a lot cheaper than buying them at the store or restaurant and you can control what you put in them and on them.
Except for some bugginess in the Super Tracker site, the biggest challenge was in wading through complex layers of information on federal, state and local government agency, church, community, and non-profit organization websites, which sometimes provided only partial answers or those whose meaning required additional research to understand. I started to appreciate the overwhelming process of identifying and applying to programs, especially for someone who does not know where to begin, has no computer skills or lacks Internet access.
When my team’s menu was less than the SNAP allotment, I was happily surprised thinking that it is possible to live on less than $31 a day and still eat reasonably well. In looking more critically beyond the one-day menu, I realized that we had not considered the limited supply of foods from the WIC program. Our family may not be able to replicate our one-day menu throughout an entire month and would likely have to make sacrifices by eating foods that are not preferred or not as nutritionally balanced.
I also began to see how much extra effort it takes to live within such limited means. In addition to the everyday stresses of meal planning, breastfeeding full-time, and caring for an infant, two other children, an older parent and a disabled husband, this family and Supermom, who is also disabled, has the added stress of needing to rely on coupons and sales, picking up WIC checks, standing on line at food pantries, getting to and from Jamaica, Queens to pick up Grandma’s food package, and the extra time it takes at the supermarket checkout to make sure purchases match the checks. The stress level might have become even higher if the family had to recertify for programs each month as would have been required by the recently failed Farm Bill.
There is a social stigma as well. It may be embarrassing or demeaning to ask for food, to stand on a food pantry line or to be that person at the supermarket holding up the rest of the line. I have personally witnessed impatience and disdain for someone on public assistance, including from those waiting on line at the supermarket, cashiers and other store workers, and farmers’ market managers. This project has reinforced the need for compassion.
Often political rhetoric paints entitlements as supporting a culture of laziness. But Social Security and Medicare are two of the largest entitlement programs that will soon, if not already, outspend all other entitlements given the thousands of Baby Boomers entering retirement age every day. However, you rarely hear complaints about the people who receive those benefits. In fact, the concerns are about how to save Social Security.
I am left with many questions. What are the consequences to society if food security entitlements go away or become too complex to be accessible? What happens to a society with chronically hungry groups of people who have no options? We know that children are most affected by food insecurity and without intervention, will have a lifetime of struggles and perpetuate the problem. How will such children become productive working adults, whose taxes will fund Social Security and Medicare for future generations of senior citizens?
Entitlement programs are intimately connected and must be funded. Food security entitlements help people in times of need, especially children, who are most vulnerable. As our project illustrated, entitlements do not provide enough, and yet their existence seems chronically under threat for providing too much. I support food security entitlements and believe that they must continue until the root problems of food insecurity are addressed, such as poverty, lack of education, joblessness, high cost of housing, and an inadequate health care system.