Posts Tagged ‘food stamps’

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!

The Food Stamp Challenge…with just $16 per month!

Here’s a thought experiment:

How much food could you buy for $16 per month?  Furthermore, what could you buy for $16 that would be nutritious and didn’t involve fast food joints?  For too many individuals in our community, the $16 thought experiment is actually a reality.  As of April 2009, the minimum SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefit is $16 per month. Sadly, this is an increase from the previous minimum of $14 per month.

So, how are SNAP recipients to cope? The good news is that with a bit of planning, $16 can go a lot further at the grocery store than you might think!  Join the Capital Area Food Bank’s Director of Nutrition Education, Jodi Balis, on July 22nd as she facilitates an interactive workshop on how individuals can stretch their food budget–and still eat nutritious meals. This workshop is aimed at service providers as they seek to communicate healthy eating on a budget to clients.

The Nutritious $16 Food Bag
11am-1pm on Thursday, July 22nd
George Mason Regional Library
7001 Little River Turnpike
Annandale, VA 22003

Click here to register for this free workshop.

If you are interested in other free workshops offered by the Capital Area Food Bank, check out this website or send an e-mail to aaa@capitalareafoodbank.org.

Doubling farmers market dollars: food stamp benefits

The District’s food stamp eligibility rules changed recently, making thousands of households whose income is between 133% and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level newly eligible for benefits.

Bread for the City’s legal clinic interns Zila McDowell, Bryan Evans, and Carrie Johnson recently called through the 151 food pantry clients who reported incomes in this range. The clients’ eligibility for benefits depends on several additional factors: their household size, income source (a job versus disability benefits and other unearned income), and certain household expenses. Based on the information they gave us, some of these clients became eligible for food stamps when the changes went into effect.

The interns helped interested clients complete a food stamp estimator, giving them a sense of the level of benefits for which they’d qualify. Carrie says, “clients I called were excited about the change in the food stamp program. Some only qualified for $16 [the minimum monthly benefit for 1- and 2-person households], but they still said ‘something is better than nothing…. I’ll take what I can get.’”

Even $16 in food stamps will stretch a little farther this summer thanks to Freshfarm farmers’ market’s “Double Dollars” program. We covered this program last summer and are pleased to report that this year it’s expanded from one to three farmers’ markets in the District (plus the Saturday market in Silver Spring):

  • 200 Independence Avenue SW on Wednesdays from 2:30-6:30pm
  • 810 Vermont Avenue, NW on Thursdays from 3-7pm
  • 625 H Street NE on Saturdays from 9am-noon
  • Food stamp recipients who visit these markets can make up to a $10 charge on their EBT cards, and get twice the value of their charge in tokens to buy food at the market. (Several other markets take EBT cards and the $25 in “Get Fresh” checks provided to WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program recipients, but are not currently participating in double-dollar promotions. A new market at Howard University Hospital is also taking WIC and senior vouchers.)

    According to Carrie, “Mr. P was incredibly excited about the farmers’ market double-dollars program. He was excited about being able to buy fresh produce in an open air market.” We’re glad that DC food stamp recipients can now extend their food budgets and access more nutritious, locally-grown food…and happy to have interns who help us share this good news with our clients!

    Making WIC work for consumers and farmers

    Ward 8 with WIC sign

    In a previous post, we explored a new Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program that helps low-income mothers buy more fresh produce at farmers markets. The new coupons are known as WIC Fruit and Vegetable Cash Value Vouchers, or FVC. This second post in the series looks at benefits of a similar nutrition assistance program already in place–the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP)–and yet more stumbling blocks in implementation of such programs.

    First, the good news.

    According to a report by the Community Food Security Coalition based on USDA numbers, 2.3 million WIC participants received farmers market benefits in 2008, spending about $20 million. During that year, 16,016 farmers and 3,367 farmers markets were authorized to accept FMNP coupons. The USDA awarded grants to each state, amounting to $301,302 for D.C. in 2009, while Maryland received $341,338 (Virginia received $291,212 in 2008, but declined to participate last year).

    Also according to the report, evaluation of the program in Washington state showed that WIC recipients who used vouchers increased their knowledge and consumption of fruits and vegetables, and planned to keep coming to farmers markets in the future. Several D.C.-area markets–including the Crossroads market in Takoma Park and three of the markets run by FRESHFARM Markets–established very popular grant-funded “double dollar” programs, which matched the value of vouchers, increasing shoppers’ buying power and farmers’ income.

    This works out for everyone–at least until bureaucracy or lack of participation get in the way.

    Liz Falk, the former manager of WIC and food stamp programs for FRESHFARM Markets, says she saw very little in the way of advertising for the WIC FMNP. D.C.’s WIC administrators and the Department of Health could not — or would not — devote much funding to develop and distribute marketing materials, and different agencies were reluctant even to add each others’ information to existing materials. The situation will likely hold true for the FVC program.

    More worrisome still: Falk says that “red tape is covering so much of what’s possible with these programs.”

    The program’s certification process itself is problematic. As our first post mentioned, D.C. offers just one training for farmers who want to participate in the WIC FMNP, Senior FMNP, and FVC programs. (It’s set for this Wednesday, March 10 in Greenbelt, MD, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

    By contrast Maryland offers multiple trainings on 13 different dates in Greenbelt, Annapolis, Hagerstown, Baltimore, and Denton. Each lasts an hour–from 10 to 11 a.m. or 1 to 2 p.m.

    DC To Get $1.5 Million More For Food Stamp Administration

    Cross-posted on Poverty and Policy

    Tucked away in the Fiscal Year 2010 appropriations for the Department of Defense are some other appropriations Congress wanted to fast-track. One provides a total of $400 million more to help states–and the District of Columbia–cope with increasing pressures on their food stamp programs.

    The costs of food stamps themselves are covered by the federal government. But state and local agencies have to administer the program. The federal government ordinarily picks up about 50% of the administrative costs, leaving states responsible for the rest.

    The supplement will increase the federal share, with the greatest amounts going to the states with the highest percentages of households in the food stamp program and the greatest recent increases in the number participating. The District will get nearly $1.5 million.

    The recession has vastly increased applications, caseloads and, with them, needs to periodically re-verify eligibility. Backlogs have become a serious problem. In our own backyard, Maryland is under court order because of excessive processing delays. At least four other states have settled similar class action lawsuits. Texas has been told it may lose federal funds if it doesn’t speed up its system.

    Last year, the District got a bonus performance award for the timeliness of its applications processing, along with an award for program access, i.e., the percentage of eligible residents enrolled in its program.

    But applications processing doesn’t measure how long people have to wait to complete the intake process. We read of people waiting hours–even days–to get the required meeting with an Income Maintenance Administration staff member. No wonder, given the staff cutbacks and rising unemployment rate.

    And bonus award notwithstanding, the participation rate here leaves room for improvement. This means that IMA should be investing resources in outreach to low-income people who don’t know they’re eligible or are deterred by barriers real and imagined. The hassle factor, including the costs of repeated trips to an IMA service center, are surely among the former.

    Now IMA could have reduced its administrative burdens by swiftly implementing the Food Stamp Expansion Act because making more people categorically eligible would reduce needs to go through the complex process of calculating assets. It might have gotten a larger share of the supplement too.

    We’re given to understand that it will complete implementation some time this spring. By then, it will also have its extra administrative funds. So we should see shorter waiting times in the service centers, quick turnarounds on applications and a higher participation rate.

    This, of course, assumes that the Fenty administration uses the extra funds as Congress intended. Staff at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have warned that states could reduce their own funding for food administration and use the new federal funds instead.

    But surely that won’t happen here. Will it?

    DC’s “Hidden” Source of Affordable Seafood

    Even though I’ve lived in Washington, DC for more than five years now and have tried to become knowledgeable about the food scene in the city, last weekend was my first trip the Maine Avenue Fish Market, also referred to as “The Wharf” by many locals.

    While the market is certainly not a secret — its been a neighborhood favorite for more than two centuries — to tourists it’s virtually unknown, and even most transplanted DC residents have no idea there’s a fresh fish market located conspicuously under an I-395 overpass, just blocks from the Capitol.