A New Tool to Address Hunger in High-Poverty Communities

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has helped bring renewed public attention to poverty, opportunity, and the safety net.  Debates over potential new initiatives in these areas should take account of the accomplishments of existing programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and the school breakfast and lunch programs.  And, the school meals programs have an important new tool — community eligibility — that can make them even more effective in reducing hunger in high-poverty communities.  But eligible schools must act by June 30 to take advantage of this opportunity.

I’ve worked on the school meals programs for over 35 years, starting when I was in charge of the federal food assistance programs in the Agriculture Department during the Carter Administration.  They have long served a vital role and have continued to improve over the years with healthier meals and greater efficiency.

Under community eligibility, schools in which at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free school meals automatically, without submitting an application, can serve free meals to all students.  Students are approved without an application if they have been identified by another program (such as SNAP) as being low-income, or if they are at risk of hunger (for example, because they are homeless).

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USDA Announces School Meal Flexibility for Upcoming School Year

WASHINGTON, May 20, 2014 – Today, Agriculture Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon announced new flexibility for school districts working to meet updated whole grain requirements for school meals. During the current school year, USDA received feedback from schools that the whole grain rich products currently on the market did not hold together when produced in large quantities for school cafeterias. Based on this input, schools that demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole-grain rich pastas can now continue serving traditional enriched pasta products for up to two more years, as industry works to develop healthy pasta that works for schools.”Schools raised legitimate concerns that acceptable whole-grain rich pasta products were not available. We worked to find a solution which will allow more time for industry to develop products that will work for schools,” said Concannon. “We continue to listen and work closely with schools and parents to implement common sense nutritional guidance that supports a healthier next generation. But, with one third of American children fighting obesity, we cannot accept politically motivated efforts to undermine standards and deny kids healthier options.”

To help reduce America’s childhood obesity epidemic and reduce health risks for America’s children, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set new school meal standards based on expert recommendations from the Institute of Medicine to ensure kids are being served healthy food while they are at school. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that children are already choosing to eat healthier foods, including more fruits and vegetables, as a result. Experts identified increased consumption of whole grain foods as a key factor in helping lower childhood obesity and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

Therefore, beginning next school year, all grains and breads in school meal programs must be “whole grain-rich,” meaning that they contain at least 50 percent whole grain meal and/or flour. These requirements also reflect the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommended making whole grains at least half of all grains consumed.

Many types of pasta, including those available through USDA Foods, meet the whole grain-rich criteria. However, during the current school year, USDA heard feedback from some schools suggesting that certain whole grain-rich pastas raised a challenge for school menus. Some of the available products, such as lasagna and elbow noodles, degraded easily during preparation and service and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations. Additional consultations with both schools and pasta industry experts confirmed this challenge.

Whole grain-rich pastas made from blends of whole grain and enriched flours maintain better consistency, but these products are still emerging in the marketplace. Therefore, USDA recognizes that USDA Foods and industry may need additional time to develop a range of acceptable whole grain-rich pastas. As such, USDA is offering flexibility in this area for those districts serving menu items with whole grain-rich pastas that do not hold together well.

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The Unintended Consequences of Cutting SNAP Benefits

Nutrition assistance programs help reduce the gap between low wages and basic family needs. They are also an important work support intended
to help families stay healthy and move towards economic independence. However, just when some families become more self-sufficient by earning
even a modest increase in income, their progress can lead to termination of assistance benefits. This creates a gap between basic expenses and total
family resources. Families suffer a substantial net loss by earning more, and struggle, yet again, to buy groceries. In the policy world, this is called the
“cliff effect”—it shows that rather than a steady climb to economic independence, families “fall off a cliff” when they try to climb higher.

Why would earning more make it more difficult for families to pay for basic living expenses? Because the assistance was cut off or reduced
too quickly. We see the effects of this cliff on a regular basis in our clinics and emergency rooms. Among almost 22,000 families with children
under age four in the multi-state Children’s Health Watch dataset, we found that of families who reported they increased their income, 14 percent lost
their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits entirely and 10 percent had their SNAP reduced. Some might think that this means
the system is working as it should—but we see the stark health consequences of the cliff: despite increases in income, family economic hardship increased, and young children’s health and development suffered.

In some cases, children in families whose benefit was reduced had worse health outcomes than those who completely lost their benefit,
potentially because the income increase was very small or temporary, yet the SNAP benefit reduction significantly constrained the family budget.
This result underscores the health consquences of squeezed family resources, creating a situation in which families must make terrible decisions
between paying for some basic needs over others.

Find more in the Children’s Health Watch Report here:


Eligible Seniors Missing Out on SNAP Benefits

While 80 percent of SNAP-eligible people received benefits in 2011, according to a Mathematica Policy Research study, only 39 percent of Americans over 60 participated in the program – with 5.2 million seniors missing out on nutrition assistance.

“Some are too proud about taking ‘handouts’ – that’s the mindset,” said Diane Gonzales, director of “Senior Stop,” a Child Center of New York program in Queens which helps seniors apply for SNAP – often in just 20 minutes. Jackie Kauff, a senior researcher at Mathematica, said seniors might feel that taking SNAP benefits robs others of assistance, especially young children.

Some seniors find the application process daunting. Although the government has simplified the SNAP application process, “[i]t’s very complicated,” said Kauff. “Lots of seniors find it burdensome.”

While the November 2013 SNAP cut reduced benefits amounts – one recipient in Queens, helped by the Senior Stop program, saw her benefits drop from $200 a month $189 – the SNAP Program remains a vital resource that too many seniors are not receiving.

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Hunger and Health

Hunger is a health care issue. With an estimated 130 billion dollars in annual health care costs associated with hunger, addressing food insecurity and poor nutrition is a necessary step for the health of our communities. The Come to the Table video by Promedica, a locally owned, nonprofit healthcare organization serving northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, makes the connection clearly. A recent article, “Access to Good Food as Preventive Medicine,” discusses recent findings that one in three chronic disease sufferers can’t afford health, medicine, or both and what medical professionals are doing to help. The head researcher of that study sits on the Board of the San Francisco and Marin County Food Bank. Depression associated with food insecurity costs 29.2 billion annually. Community Food Centres Canada recently hosted a webinar on Diet, Mental Health, and the Role of Community Food Programs which discussed research on the topic of diet, mental health, and its intersection with poverty as well as innovative programs to address these issues. A recording of the webinar will soon be available on The Pod Knowledge Exchange.

Closing the Hunger Gap Report

In September 2013, the Community Food Bank of Arizona hosted Closing the Hunger Gap, a conference for progressive emergency food providers across the country who are interested in moving beyond charitable distribution. Providers attended workshops, networked, and identified seven areas of interest and exploration through a facilitated process: Food Banks as Public Health Institutions, Food Banks in Symbiotic Relationship with Local Food Producers, Capacity Building and Convening, Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Innovation and Learning, Becoming Community Economic Builders, Food Banks as Community Organizers and Social Justice Advocates, and Food Banks as Public Policy Leaders.
The conference report is now available on the website, and marks the start of a coordinated, transparent effort to share ideas and advance food banking into a more justice oriented approach.


Read the ful report:

USDA Awards Grants for Nutrition Education Programs in Tribal Communities

“The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations provides a vital source of healthy foods for households, many of which may have limited access to SNAP-authorized food stores,” Deputy Secretary Harden said. “This year’s awardees have developed creative, self-initiated projects designed to assist participants with incorporating healthy foods and physical activity as daily lifestyle habits.”

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Prescribing Food Like Medicine Would Save Medicare Millions

By Robert Greenwald and David B. Waters

In the continuing debate about how to control soaring healthcare costs, poor nutrition and lack of access to healthy food are routinely ignored.

This is the case despite the fact that in a country as wealthy as the United States, one in three patients nationwide enters the hospital malnourished, adding a host of additional health challenges to patients’ prognoses and millions in additional health care costs.

By Robert Greenwald and David B. Waters
Malnourished patients are significantly more likely than well-nourished patients to be re-hospitalized and suffer poor outcomes. Malnourished patients’ medications do not work as effectively. They often remain in the hospital longer and in many cases cannot continue critical treatments such as chemotherapy because they are not getting proper nutrition.

Simply put, there is a direct and important connection between nutrition and disease treatment and management. Food is medicine.

Making sure patients have enough of the right kind of food to eat at home — meals that will help them heal — makes economic and social sense. A recent study estimated that if all states had increased by one percent the number of adults age sixty-five or older who received home-delivered meals in 2009, annual savings to states’ Medicaid programs could have exceeded $109 million. However, the problem goes beyond just food-insecurity — many medically prescribed diets are very complex to produce at home and expensive for a low-income household to afford. By tailoring home-delivered meals to individuals’ medical needs and expanding the program to the non-elderly critically ill, the potential for health care savings is vast.

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WIC program participants will have greater access to fruits, vegetables and whole grains under an overhaul of the program

(Reuters) – Some 9 million poor women and young children who receive federal food assistance under the U.S. government’s so-called WIC program will have greater access to fruits, vegetables and whole grains under an overhaul of the program unveiled on Friday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture hailed the revamping of its Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children as the first comprehensive revisions to WIC food voucher allowances since 1980.

The list of foods that recipients could pay for with WIC vouchers was long limited to such basics as milk, infant formula, cheese, eggs, cereals, bread and tuna fish.

But many of the changes finalized by the USDA on Friday were instituted on an interim basis in 2007, including the introduction of fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables to the list of WIC-covered foods.

In its final form, the overhaul will boost by 30 percent, or $2 per month, the allowance for each child’s fruit and vegetable purchases, and permit fresh produce in lieu of jarred infant food for babies, if their parents prefer.

The update also expands whole grain options available to recipients and allows yogurt as a partial milk substitute, adding to the soy-based beverages and tofu that were previously included.

Moreover, states and local WIC agencies will be given more flexibility in selecting foods to meet the nutritional and cultural needs of their beneficiaries.

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