Category Archives: Food Security

Gaps are Closing, but More Must be Done to Create an Economy of Inclusion

Gaps are Closing, but More Must Be Done to Create an Economy of Inclusion

By Lucas Allen
September 22, 2016

Nearly nine years after the start of the Great Recession, economic recovery has been painfully slow for many Americans and vast economic divides remain. However, promising new data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 2015 was the best year of economic improvement for low- and middle-income Americans in decades. Here is some of the good news revealed in the report:

  • The poverty rate fell by 1.2 percentage points, the steepest decline since 1968
  • Real median household incomes rose by 5.2%, the largest increase since the 1960s
  • The percentage of Americans who lack healthcare fell to 9.1%, the lowest uninsured rate in our nation’s history

Most importantly, these economic improvements were distributed to all Americans—not just the wealthiest. This Census report shows that in 2015, our country made some much-needed positive steps toward mending the gaps in our divided society. While these improvements are certainly promising, a closer look at the report shows that we have much more work to do to create an economy of inclusion. The shared growth of the past year is welcome news, but it has not changed the reality that far too many people are struggling to get by in the world’s richest nation. It is a grave injustice that women, children, and people of color continue to bear a disproportionate burden of this suffering. The poverty rates of women who head families (36.5%), children (19.7%), and African Americans (24.1%) are all far higher than the average poverty rate of 13.5%.

One cause for hope in this report is that federal programs are working to lift people out of situations of poverty—they just need to be ramped up. The improvements our country makes, and the gaps that persist, are greatly impacted by policies and decisions made by Congress. For example, the Earned-Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) kept 9.2 million people out of poverty, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) kept 4.6 million people out of poverty. These large numbers are hard to picture, but they represent millions of families who are able to make ends meet with support from these programs.

In his address to Congress last year, Pope Francis said, “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.” Programs such as the EITC, CTC, and SNAP are great examples of legislation based on care for people and the common good. If you and I make our voices heard this election season, we can ensure that programs like these are protected and expanded to create an inclusive economy and society.

More resources:

https://networklobby.org/election2016/sidebysides/

https://networklobby.org/election2016/

https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2016/demo/p60-256.html

Travel Log: Erie Site Visit and Caucus

Travel Blog: Erie Site Visit and Caucus

Sister Mary Ellen Lacy, DC
July 19, 2016

On Tuesday evening, we arrived in Erie, Pennsylvania. We dropped in at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church where they have a meal and food program. We were able to have conversations with the guests who came to have dinner – and then after dinner, we helped each guest go home with a bag of groceries.

The site visits with people experiencing poverty are my favorite moments.  We can learn so much from those who suffer from poverty.  Tonight, through the example of good community, sharing the burden and openness were the lessons our Lord was to teach me.

1-erie1I sat with a young man, Franco, who came to the church every week for dinner with his friend Luke. Their ages were quite disparate but they were trusted friends. Each made sure the other had enough food, salt, and drink.  Franco immediately welcomed me to sit with them.  Franco came to the church because he knows that his faith and belly would be fed there.  He looked out for Luke because they were pals.

Then, I engaged with a young father and mother and their three little girls. They carpooled a mild distance with their neighbor every Tuesday because neither family had a paycheck and only one had transportation. The girls were aged 2-7 years and they were known to the regular servers by name. I was happy they called the people by name but my heart ached because they saw these babies so often that they knew them by name.

Lastly, I encountered Tish, a pretty young woman, about 21-years-old by my estimation. She had come for dinner with a friend who lived across the street. Tish told me that she had been coming to this church for dinner since she was nine years old.  We talked politics.  She said she felt it was unfair that Mr. Trump was not being given a chance.  Apparently, she had heard a lot of negative opinions, especially that Trump would be bad for poor people.  However, she thought that those speaking did not know him; they could not know him because they had never met him.  I suspected that she had been detrimentally prejudged in her life.  For whatever reasons, she thought we should give him a chance. All people deserved a chance.  I offered her our ‘side-by-side’ pamphlet that outlines each presidential candidate’s plans for our seven issues so that she could feel more informed as she pondered her vote.  She asked if she could keep it so that she could study it.  She was remarkably open.

It occurred to me that the people with whom I spoke knew how to live community well.   They looked out for one another; they shared resources; and they refrained from ugly judgement based upon ugly rhetoric.  This is why I see Jesus in our “Poor.”

1-erie2In the evening, we went to the caucus at St. Paul’s Parish Center. We divided the tables into our gap issues. Every team reported out after good discussions regarding visions of a nation wherein the gaps had been mended.  It was remarkable in that so many folks were willing to envision such a nation. Other times, we have needed to guide folks so they would not detour into a litany of problems.  These Erie people had the hope of a mended gap society.  They all noted that, if gaps were mended, community would be warmer, less violent, and more productive.  They were willing to continue the conversations past tonight, too.

We were fortunate to experience two different sets of conversations in Erie tonight. It is my hope that someday the people having the conversations at Holy Trinity will intersect with those having conversation at St. Paul’s.

See also:
Slideshow: Erie Caucus

Op-Ed: School Lunch Program at Risk and Congressman Mike Bishop Can Help

Op-Ed: School Lunch Program at Risk and Congressman Mike Bishop Can Help

Cherie Mollison,  East Lansing Catholics Network
June 16, 2016

Originally published in the Lansing State Journal. Read the original: http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/

For nearly half a century, the only fights about school lunch took place in cafeterias across the country with kids wielding fish sticks and chocolate pudding as weapons. Otherwise, in the fifty years since the Child Nutrition Act was signed into law, there was bipartisan consensus that as a nation, we should make every effort to ensure children from food insecure households and communities had enough to eat.

Today, that consensus is unraveling. Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives committee responsible for school breakfast and lunch and other nutrition programs voted to make it substantially harder to feed children in our communities. Sadly, our Congressman Mike Bishop, joined them, and the bill appears likely to pass.

Congressman Bishop voted yes on the so-called Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 (H.R. 5003); a dangerous piece of legislation both because of the immediate cuts it makes to the critical programs that help to feed children, and for the clear message it sends about Congress’ future plans to undo our social safety net.

Of immediate concern is a provision that reduces the number of schools allowed to provide meals at absolutely no charge to students. Currently, schools can provide free meals to all students if 40 percent of the student body is automatically eligible. The new bill would raise that threshold to 60 percent.

This means that 7,000 schools nationwide, which have been providing free meals to 3.4 million children, will no longer be eligible to serve all students. Michigan has more than 500 schools in counties across the state that are eligible for, or already participating in, this program. For example, 40 percent of the students in Ingham County, which ranks 39th in the state in overall child well-being, qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

In many of these schools the students who don’t qualify for free meals live just above the poverty line and their families are still struggling. Allowing the school to feed all students not only helps reach those children who fall through the cracks, but also reduces the resources and administrative time it takes these schools to feed their students.

Furthermore, the bill includes a provision replacing critical nutrition assistance programs with “block grants” in three states as a pilot program. Abandoning tried and tested social programs, Congress would instead give the cash directly to state governments, with little or no oversight on how it is used. This would jeopardize standards, cause dramatic and unnecessary changes to how schools operate, and, in the long term, could mean significant funding redirected away from the child nutrition programs altogether. The bill’s proponents clearly want to take this dangerous experiment nation-wide – a risk we cannot afford to take with our children.

During a meeting with NETWORK earlier this spring, Congressman Bishop called himself a “numbers guy.” When it comes to child nutrition, the data doesn’t lie. The most recent Michigan Kids Count report found that nearly 1 in 4 kids are living in poverty, a 23 percent increase from 2006 to 2014.

Perhaps Congressman Bishop is unaware of the chaos and scrambling for resources that we know will follow the types of changes he voted for in the child nutrition bill. Or maybe he has simply accepted the misinformation his colleagues in Congress sold him and misguidedly thinks this is the way to help our children.

No matter what, Congressman Bishop has the opportunity and the responsibility to lead. He must get the facts, and step up and fight back against this proposal to take food – quite literally – out of the mouths of babes.

Cherie Mollison is a member of the East Lansing Catholics Network, a local affiliate of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby. NETWORK organizes the annual “Nuns on the Bus” tour, now in its fifth year.

Blog: 10 Things Speaker Ryan Could Do to Address Poverty Right Now

10 Things Speaker Ryan Could Do to Address Poverty Right Now

NETWORK Lobby
June 7, 2016

NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice welcomes anyone, any time, to the conversation about how to make sure no one in the United States lives in poverty. But we strongly dispute the claim that this is a deeply complicated problem requiring a brand new agenda, such as the one likely to be presented by Speaker Paul Ryan in the coming days. The fact is Congress knows, and has always known, how to end poverty. It is simply not that difficult, in the richest country the world has ever known, to create an inclusive economy where everyone has the resources to live with dignity.

In fact, we could do much of it as early as tomorrow.

Toward that end, we offer Speaker Ryan, the driving force behind the Republican “anti-poverty” agenda, 10 things he could bring to the House Floor tomorrow that would actually work. This is not everything that has to be done to mend the gaps in the fabric of our society, but it’s a darn good start.

  1. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour — Even as the economic recovery has brought lower unemployment, too many people working full-time jobs (or even two or three of them) don’t make enough to get by. A study by the National Employment Law Project found that $15/hour was the lowest wage that would still allow a single worker to meet the basic cost of living just about everywhere in the United States. Speaker Ryan could help lift thousands of workers out of poverty by passing H.R. 3164, the Pay Workers a Living Wage Act introduced in Congress last year.
  2. Guarantee paid sick leave — 49% of workers in America still lack paid sick leave and are forced to choose between losing the salary they desperately need and jeopardizing their health and the health of those around them. After passing a comprehensive paid sick leave policy New York City found not only that it improved the health and financial security of workers, but also that unemployment dropped and businesses grew.The Healthy Families Act (H.R. 932) was introduced in Congress more than a year ago. There’s no excuse not to pass this legislation today.
  3. Guarantee paid family leave — In addition to ensuring that everyone has the ability to take a sick day to care for themselves or their family, we must also guarantee paid leave for new parents and those who have to take extended time to care for a sick family member. Only 5% of workers in the lowest 25% wage category have access to paid family leave, compared to 22% of workers in the highest 10% wage category. The FAMILY Act (H.R. 1439), introduced in Congress last year, builds on successful legislation passed by cities and states around the country to create an insurance program that provides workers with the family leave they need.
  4. Expand and protect the Earned Income Tax Credit — The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one of our most effective anti-poverty programs. It provides tax relief to low-income workers to ensure that no one who labors to earn a basic wage is taxed back into poverty. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the EITC helped lift 6.2 million people out of poverty in 2013. But the current law overlooks too many workers in need, including those low income workers without children and workers under 25 or over 65. Speaker Ryan himself discussed his support for addressing these gaps when he was Chairman of the House Budget Committee, now he has the means and the opportunity to make those changes today.
  5. Expand childcare subsidies — The high cost of quality childcare takes a dramatic toll on low-income families across the country. A report from theEconomic Policy Institute found that in every state, quality childcare cost more than 30% of a minimum-wage worker’s earnings. Access to high quality childcare allows parents to support their families and better prepares children to learn and grow into healthy adults. We shouldn’t ask people to choose between their kids and their paychecks — H.R. 4524, the Child CARE Act, is one way that Speaker Ryan could solve that problem.
  6. Ban the box — It’s no secret that admitting to having a criminal record is the kiss of death for job applicants. Conviction records are likely to reduce the prospect of a job offer or interview by almost 50%. There are currently 70 million people in America with arrest or conviction records, we are only just beginning to realize the massive economic implications of discriminating against the people who are reentering society and the workforce. Passing the Fair Chance Act (H.R. 3470) would allow people seeking to reenter the workforce the opportunity to apply based on merit, without facing discrimination.
  7. Pass immigration reform with a path to citizenship — For the millions of people who live in the U.S. without documentation or with only temporary permission to work, finding stable employment can be nearly impossible. Many more immigrants are barred from accessing the social programs they need because of decades of anti-immigrant legislation. By allowing immigrants to come out of the shadows and fully participate in society, immigration reform would benefit individual families and our community; the CBO estimated that immigration reform would reduce our federal budget deficit by $200 billion over ten years. H.R. 13, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, had the votes to become law in 2014 and is a viable solution to fixing our broken immigration system. Speaker Ryan should work with his fellow members of Congress to pass real immigration reform now.
  8. Expand eligibility and opportunity for low-income housing units — There is a significant shortage of affordable housing units across the country. Bipartisan legislation in the Senate rumored to be introduced in the House of Representatives (The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act) would incentivize the building and preservation of almost 1.3 million homes. Speaker Ryan can move forward with his commitment to end poverty by developing a housing plan that focuses on ensuring that everyone has a home.
  9. Continue to make healthcare more affordable — The Affordable Care Act was a critical step toward making sure that all Americans can access the healthcare they need, but it stopped short of realizing the goal of universal healthcare. H.R.3241, the State-Based Universal Health Care Act of 2015, would allow states more flexibility and freedom to work toward universal healthcare. Speaker Ryan can move forward today to ensure that no one lives in the healthcare gap and take a powerful step toward alleviating the economic uncertainty and financial burden of families still left without health insurance.
  10. Reauthorize and improve the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act — The landmark legislation that helps feed children in schools across the country has been under attack by congressional Republicans. Congress has sought to cut the number of schools eligible to feed all of their students and increase the amount of time and effort schools must put into qualifying for the program. Beyond these initial changes that will kick thousands of students out of the program, Republicans in Congress want to replace the entire program with ‘block grants’ that will seriously jeopardize our ability to feed children in need. Congress has an opportunity to improve child nutrition programs to feed more children who are hungry. If Speaker Ryan wants to lead on poverty, he can start by leading his party away from policies that take food from children.

As NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus reminded Congressman Ryan in 2012, to implement programs that work to eliminate poverty, Congress must have the political will to raise reasonable revenue for these responsible programs. We can pay for these programs by closing tax loopholes and having the courage to fix our broken tax system. Right now, a loophole in tax law allows hedge fund managers to call a portion of their earnings a ‘capital gain’ instead of ‘income’ and that small difference costs the nation billions in tax revenue every year. The Carried Interest Fairness Act (H.R. 2889) is one such piece of legislation that promotes tax fairness in the United States.

Creative solutions to solving poverty are necessary, but we don’t need to look far to find the answers. What if — instead of giving the billionaires another break — we took that money and used it to expand Section 8, the federal program that helps low-income families find affordable housing? NETWORK Lobby judges all legislation by how it would affect people experiencing poverty. If Speaker Ryan is serious about this issue, we encourage him to use the same criteria.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Sister Janet standing with residents of Providence House

Guest Blog: Without Living Wages, Women Face Instability

Guest Blog: Without Living Wages, Women Face Instability

Sister Janet Kinney, CSJ
May 12, 2016

As the Executive Director of Providence House – a Brooklyn nonprofit providing transitional and supportive housing to formerly incarcerated women and homeless women and their children – I hear every day the heart wrenching stories of women struggling to make ends meet, and their searches for suitable employment that will help them care for their children and get back on their feet. Each of them desperately wants to return to the mainstream of life, living in their own apartments. Time and again the frustrations they express are very real – because the wages they receive for the hours they work, just don’t match up to the cost of living here in New York City.

Stories like Marisa’s, a 35-year-old Hispanic woman with a three-year-old daughter who entered the New York City shelter system in September 2015 due to domestic violence abuse. Prior to moving to Providence House she had been working for five years in a bookstore as a barista. In those five years her wage crept up to a mere $9.50/hour. Before taxes this would equate to an income of $1,520/month: barely enough rent for a one bedroom apartment. Add utility costs, food costs, and general living expenses, it was clear that as a single wage earner she needed to either find higher paying employment, take on a second part-time job, or do a combination of the two. Because Marisa did not have a high school diploma her options were limited. She received training as a Home Health Care Aide, and was able to add 15-25 hours of health care work at $10/hour, though the hours are inconsistent: a worry for Marisa as she tries to save while juggling these two jobs.

Then there is Thomasine, a 31-year-old African-American woman with an eight-year-old son. Thomasine is already working two jobs – one as a security guard and the other as a waitress in a restaurant. Her combined income from these two jobs barely hits $1,500/month before taxes. She has now resided in our shelter for two years.

Mary Lou, age 34, a white woman with two children has lived at Providence House just over a year. She is a delivery supervisor at a restaurant, earning $11.25/hour, with a before taxes monthly income of $1,800. Mary Lou is working hard to save her money for the security deposit and first month’s rent of a two bedroom apartment – which range from $1,500-$1,800/month – but again, it is an upward battle.

The economic divide here in New York crosses racial lines, although people of color are disproportionately affected. In New York the minimum wage has just been raised to $9.00/hour and both the mayor and governor are challenging the legislature to adopt a $15.00/hour minimum wage phased in over three years. Across the country, the federal minimum wage is even lower, only $7.25/hour.

Fighting for a living wage is more complicated than simply raising the hourly minimum wage. Workers today face multiple challenges, such as employers increasing part time and contract work, receiving different wages for tipped work, and decreasing benefits.

Living wages also depend on having access to affordable housing and maintaining savings. There was a time when ‘the norm’ was an individual or family dedicating 30 percent of their income to rent, which allowed them to not only pay for other living costs (food, utilities, clothing, medical, transportation) but also contribute to a savings account or pursue further education. The women I work with will be lucky if two-thirds (67 percent) of their income is dedicated to rent. Savings become difficult, if not impossible, so even when one of our group of women can earn enough to afford her own apartment, without savings, she lives on the precipice of future homelessness if any part of her fragile income stream falters.

Living wages ensure workers can care for themselves and their families and meet their housing, nutrition, health, and other needs regardless of where they live. A minimum wage is not enough; we must have living wages.

Sister Janet Kinney, CSJ is the Executive Director of Providence House in Brooklyn, New York,  www.providencehouse.org

This story originally appeared in NETWORK’s Connection magazine. See the full issue here.

Blog: Over 500,000 Adults will Lose Assistance to Keep Food on the Table

Over 500,000 Adults will Lose Assistance to Keep Food on the Table

Mary McClure
February 16, 2016

In a matter of months, over half a million people living on the margins will no longer receive a critical tool to help them get enough to eat each day.

This year, 23 states are implementing a time limit on how long certain individuals can receive food assistance thorough the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) is the nation’s largest anti-hunger program. It responds quickly to changes in the economy, and serves families, individuals, children, older adults, and people with disabilities. While the majority of households that receive SNAP benefits have a person who is working, a portion of the population either cannot work or face barriers to meaningful employment.

Catholic Social Justice calls us to uphold the dignity of each person as an equally valuable member of the human family. Because of each person’s essential dignity, everyone has a right to all that is needed to allow her or him to reach full potential. This particularly applies to basic needs, including food. Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Jesus taught his disciples to pray by asking the Heavenly Father not for “my” but for “our” daily bread. Thus, he desired every person to feel co-responsible for his [or her] brothers [and sisters] so that no one would want for what he [or she] needs in order to live. The earth’s produce forms a gift which God has destined ‘for the entire human family’” (Angelus, 2006).* [1] l

Our shared responsibility for our sisters and brothers is precisely why we are so alarmed that approximately half a million Americans will lose eligibility for SNAP benefits.

The people at risk for SNAP time limits are able-bodied adults without minor children. These are some of our nation’s most vulnerable members; research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) indicates they are a very poor, diverse, and underserved group. Because of low education and skill levels, many enter in and out of work in low-paying jobs that do not lift them out of poverty, while others experience deep poverty or chronic homelessness. These individuals are eligible for few safety net programs while they are employed and almost none for when they are not.

While the population doesn’t fit in any specific category, we know some information about the people who will be affected:

  • 45% are women, 55% are men
  • About 30% are over 40 years old
  • About half are white, a third are African American, and a tenth are Hispanic
  • They live across metro status: 41% suburban, 39% urban, and 21% rural

The time limit provision, part of the 1996 welfare law, restricts these people to three months of SNAP benefits during any 36-month period if they are not employed or in a work training program for at least 20 hours a week. Many states enacted waivers to this limit during the recession and following years due to the limited availability of jobs, but as the economy recovers, the waivers are expiring.

It is essential to note this policy is not a work requirement—it’s a time limit. This law does not require states to offer employment or job training to people who are unable to find a job, and does not provide funding for this purpose. Many states have few or no work or training programs. SNAP recipients who do not find a job, despite looking for work and a willingness to work, will still lose their benefits after three months.

Currently, it is unlikely that Congress will act to protect this group, but there are steps that states can take. States can and should waive the time limit in areas of the state still struggling with high unemployment. They should also ensure that they are not applying the time limit to exempted individuals, including many who are experiencing homelessness. Finally, states must do what they can to provide job training services to people who will be impacted so these people can continue to receive the help they need to get enough to eat and gain the skills needed to secure employment.

At NETWORK, our faithful response to food policy discussion is to ensure all people have their basic nutrition needs met. We remember the words of Pope Francis, who said “The planet has enough food for all, but it seems that there is a lack of willingness to share it with everyone” (Homily, 2015). [2] It is wrong to impose a time limit on this safety net program, especially when adequate resources are not provided to ensure employment for a very vulnerable group. It is wrong that in the wealthiest nation on earth, people still go hungry. We must continue to bring faithful voices and attention to the problem to our friends and neighbors.

For a more in-depth look at SNAP time limits, please visit the report from CBPP.

*Quote adapted with brackets for gender inclusivity

Blog: Living Laudato Si’

Living Laudato Si’

By Colleen Ross
July 07, 2015

Recently, NETWORK staff participated in a day away from the office living out Laudato Si’. We began the day at Three Part Harmony Farm – an urban farm in Washington, about two miles away from the office. At Three Part Harmony Farm we met Gail Taylor, the farm’s founder. Four years ago, the two acres that Three Part Harmony Farm now occupies was just empty land with grass growing. Working with the Oblate priests who owned the land, Gail began farming on the land, while also working to change D.C. tax codes that kept her from selling the farm’s produce in order for the land to remain tax exempt. Her efforts resulted in the D.C. Council passing the Urban Farming and Food Security Act in December 2014, which protects the tax-exempt status of land used for urban farms and community gardens as well as identifying new lots for urban farming, and other incentives for farming on land within D.C.

At Three Part Harmony Farm, we harvested peas, pulled turnips, planted cucumbers, and cut raspberry leaves for tea and other uses. With different tasks to work on, everyone learned something new and experienced a different part of farming. LaTreviette Matthews said “I had a great time on the farm. I learned so much about the process of starting and maintaining a farm. I have a greater appreciation for what farmers do.” Nick Moffa connected farming to federal policy: “My experience at the farm was a fantastic opportunity to see the work I do in the office come alive, especially protecting nutrition programs.” Allison Walters reflected later saying: “I thought the farm was an incredible example of what it means to live a life that is aware. Each choice made by the farmer was carefully considered for its impact on the community, the local economy, and the earth. What a great example of living Laudato Si’.” Even more important than learning to plant or harvest, at Three Part Harmony Farm we learned what a mindful, local movement towards a healthy relationship with the earth looks like.

After our close encounter with nature at Three Part Harmony Farm, we moved to Rock Creek Park, a National Park in the middle of the city, to continue our day. After sharing a potluck lunch, we explored the interconnection and intersection of caring for creation and caring for those who are vulnerable and marginalized. Reading excerpts from Laudato Si’ and news stories about the effects of climate change, unjust food distribution, and the exploitation of creation, we discussed the harm that has been done to our planet and our communities and found hope in Pope Francis’s call for a new way of valuing and living in our common home. We ended our day feeling hot and tired, but renewed with a deeper appreciation of our relationships to the earth and to each other.

Blog: How to Respond to Implausible Claims about “Welfare”

How to Respond to Implausible Claims about “Welfare”

By Colleen Ross
February 13, 2015

We’ve all heard the claim — at the Thanksgiving dinner table, in the church social hall, at the water cooler, or even in our own email inboxes — that government programs are too generous and are disincentives to work. Last week, we were contacted by a NETWORK friend looking for guidance on how to respond to such an argument. Frustrated with the persistence of this claim and its popularity in our political discourse, I thought a succinct but thorough response may be useful to have on hand.

The first thing to understand is that the basis of this argument and the source of any numbers cited to support it  are in a report published by the Cato Institute, The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off. Originally written in 1995, the report was updated and re-released last year, prompting another wave of attention to its claims as well as robust criticism of its research methods and conclusions by numerous economists.

If you, like me, have heard about this argument, I hope the response I sent out (below) is helpful to you.

It can be tempting to believe that others are receiving undeserved assistance, but numerous sources have addressed and disproved the data compiled in the two Cato reports published in 1995 and 2013 that many cite as proof that safety-net programs disincentivize work. (1, 2, 3) Furthermore, the vast majority of safety-net entitlements and mandatory programs are not given to people who choose not to work, but instead go to the “elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households” (4)

Two fundamental errors in the reports are an assumption that families receive all possible forms of assistance simultaneously – and that they are not working. Actually, as pointed out by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a family receiving numerous kinds of assistance is relatively rare, and many eligible families don’t receive any benefits at all. In addition, a significant percentage of families receiving some kinds of assistance include people with jobs who, because of very low wages, fall below the poverty line and thus qualify for help.

We at NETWORK base our analysis on reports from reputable, bipartisan sources as well as the shared lived experiences of our Catholic sisters who work on the ground every day with those at the margins. After more than four decades, what we have found emphatically refutes the narrative that safety-net programs are so generous that they dissuade men and women from entering the workforce, or from working full-time jobs. Sister Simone Campbell’s testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee is a concise summary of NETWORK’s position on this topic. (5)

The United States has the largest economy in the world, yet the most recent report from the Census Bureau found that 45.3 million people were living in poverty last year in our nation. (6) The Children’s Defense Fund recently released a report on the state of child poverty in the United States, studying the situation of the 12.2 million children who fell under the poverty line in 2013, even with federal safety-net programs taken into account. (7) These excessive numbers of our brothers and sisters who are struggling with poverty should be morally impermissible to us living in the wealthiest country in the world. Catholic Social Teaching principles call on us to judge our society by how our most vulnerable fare, and when so many people in our society live below the poverty line we must take action communally to change that.

Safety-net programs are intended as a last resort, social insurance program to care for those who are struggling. Too often, these programs are left to survive on inadequate funding or cut entirely, making it very difficult to serve everyone who needs their vital assistance. This is especially problematic for housing and energy assistance programs.

Finally, the safety-net programs that our government administers are investments in our families, our nation, and our future and have proven effectiveness. The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are two such programs that have been found to increase employment rates of parents, reduce child poverty, and have a positive impact on children’s school performance. (8) Similarly, increasing SNAP benefits is one of the most effective strategies for boosting a weak economy, generating about $1.70 in economic activity for each additional dollar invested. (9) Safety-net programs are not disincentives to work; they are positive drivers of the economy and moral investments in our nation’s greatest strength: people.

Resources used:

  1. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=4004
  2. http://www.epi.org/blog/cato-study-distorts-truth-welfare-work/
  3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/09/03/the-conservative-case-for-welfare-reform-suffers-massive-blow-via-cato-institute-study/
  4. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3677
  5. https://www.networklobby.org/files/Final%20Written–Sr%20%20Simone%20Campbell%20(2)_1.pdf
  6. http://www.chn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/National-Final-Poverty-Day-Report-2013-Data.pdf
  7. http://www.childrensdefense.org/library/PovertyReport/EndingChildPovertyNow.html
  8. http://www.nber.org/papers/w11729
  9. http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/227714/foodsecuritysnap_1_.pdf

Assessing the Implementation of the Child Nutrition Act of 2010 and Preparing for Its Reauthorization in 2015

Assessing the Implementation of the Child Nutrition Act of 2010 and Preparing for Its Reauthorization in 2015

Caroyln Burstein
September 26, 2014

The Child Nutrition Act, reauthorized in 2010 as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), covers funding for school meal and child nutrition programs, known variously as the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, Afterschool Meal Program, Summer Nutrition Program and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).  The bill that reauthorizes these programs is usually referred to by shorthand as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill. In 2010 these child nutrition programs were re-authorized for five years and included $4.5 billion in new funding over 10 years.

Before considering the elements of the HHFKA, let’s consider how the federal government became involved in child nutrition in the first place. It all began back in 1936 with the innocuous-sounding congressional bill called the Commodity Donation Program, whereby the government, concerned that improved agricultural productivity would continue to depress the prices of   crops, began to distribute surplus farm commodities to schools for meals for students who could not otherwise afford them.

Then in 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act to establish permanently a federally funded school lunch program. In 1966 President Johnson signed the first Child Nutrition Act (CNA) into law that authorized the federal school meal and child nutrition programs. The CNA was to be re-authorized by Congress every five years. Since then the law has expanded to include free and reduced-priced breakfast, milk, after-school snacks and summer meals for qualifying students.

The following are the key provisions of the HHFKA of 2010:

  • Improves nutrition and focuses on reducing childhood obesity by setting nutritional standards for allfoods regularly sold in schools, including those sold in vending machines; providing additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards; helping communities establish local farm to school networks; setting basic standards for school wellness policies, including those in physical activities; promoting nutrition and wellness in child care settings; and, expanding support for breastfeeding through the WIC program
  • Increases access  to Child Nutrition programs by allowing direct certification of children through the use of Medicaid data; setting benchmarks for states to improve the certification process and thus enroll more students; allowing more universal meal access for eligible students by eliminating paper applications and using census data to determine school-wide or community eligibility; and, expanding USDA authority to support meals served to at-risk children in afterschool programs
  • Increases program monitoring and integrity  by requiring school districts to be audited every three years on their compliance with nutritional standards; requiring schools to make nutritional information more readily available to parents; ensuring the safety of school foods; and, providing training and technical assistance for school food service providers

Since the HHFKA is a federal entitlement program for all eligible children living in the U.S. regardless of citizenship status, let’s begin our assessment of the 2010 law with the eligibility and enrollment process. Children can be enrolled in the HHFKA in two major ways: 1) parents can apply for the programs by submitting information about their total household incomes through a simple paper application provided by the school district; or 2) through “direct certification,” a process whereby state agencies or school food authorities obtain lists of families enrolled in the food stamp program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP) or the “welfare” program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – TANF) and match those lists with the students enrolled in schools the agency serves. Since the 2008-09 school year, school districts have been required to directly certify students. This change has increased access to free and reduced-price lunches as well as limited the potential for error by automatically enrolling students rather than relying on parent’s paper applications.

And this school year, 2014-15, a third method of enrollment is available to school districts, known as “community eligibility.” Community eligibility covers schools with 40% or more of students who are identified as coming from families receiving food stamps and/or welfare benefits or participating in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), children enrolled in Head Start, or students who are homeless or in foster care. These schools may be reimbursed directly and all children in the school may receive free breakfast and lunch.

High-poverty school districts with low direct certification rates would find that their identified student percentage does not accurately reflect the level of poverty within the student population and should be eager to participate in community eligibility, thus eliminating barriers to participation for numerous low-income, hungry children.

Direct certification became an option for schools as early as 1986, but it was not until 2010 that the HHFKA set performance benchmarks for states, requiring them to directly certify 95% of eligible children by the 2013-14 school year that ended this past June. While states have made significant progress in improving their direct certification rates, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has examined data from the USDA that show that 28 states did not achieve Congress’ benchmark for the 2012-13 school year (data are not yet available for the 2013-14 school year). Twelve states did not even reach 80% of the 90% goal, thus missing more than one in five eligible children.

According to CBPP, the USDA has increased flexibility and strengthened the direct certification process over the past five years, including highlighting the best practices of high-performing states that have received bonus awards and making $17 million in grants available to states to improve their direct certification systems.  The wide gap between the 12 states that had not even achieved 80% direct certification and those near the top clearly demonstrates that some states’ direct certification systems are simply less effective than other states’ systems.

CBPP concludes its analysis by stating that “direct certification ensures that vulnerable children at risk of hunger can count on getting free breakfasts and lunches at school and, as direct certification systems improve, millions of low-income students across the country will benefit from improved access to school meals. At the same time, school districts will benefit even more from the simplified program administration and improved program integrity.”

The states with strong direct certification systems are well positioned to maximize the number of high-poverty schools that are eligible this school year for the community eligibility process that will allow them to adopt the universal meal provision. Some of these states already were early participants in community eligibility (11 states were involved, some as early as 2011). Community eligibility was established in the HHFKA to enable high-poverty schools to feed more students and focus on meal quality rather than on paperwork.

In fiscal year 2013, more than 70% of funds spent for child nutrition funded the National School Lunch Program, while just over 22% financed school breakfasts and less than 1% financed school milk programs. The school lunch program is the second largest nutritional assistance program in the nation after the food stamp program.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) makes clear that, however important breakfast is for all people, especially children, only 10.8 million low-income children benefit from school breakfast, while too many millions of other eligible children miss out. Only about 50% of the same children who enjoy subsidized lunches participate in the School Breakfast Program, if it is even offered at their schools. Why the disparity? Besides the time and place of breakfast service and the stigma of the payment system in reducing participation, there are also numerous other problems that don’t affect the school lunch program. Some of these problems are bus schedules, parents’ work schedules, children’s desire to socialize on the playground, and even slowdowns in lines due to school security. Because of these and related reasons, many schools do not even participate in the School Breakfast Program.

Another program that is shortchanged is the Summer Nutrition Program. Child hunger is often at its worse during the summer months when children are out of school and do not have access to regular school meals. Summer Nutrition Programs are essential for filling the gap, but there are not nearly enough sites to fill the need. There are only 34 summer food sites for every 100 school lunch programs. Even though the majority of schools are closed during parts of the summer, any church or neighborhood program for children is eligible to take part in the Summer Nutrition Program, but, unfortunately, few either do or qualify to be a part of the program.

There are numerous reasons why some of the programs that are part of the Child Nutrition Act (the HHFKA) have been sluggish in their implementation in the past few years:

  • Lack of awareness on the part of some smaller school districts, especially in the area of getting a local entity, such as a private nonprofit, to sponsor the program
  • Communication barriers between families and schools
  • Administrative hurdles to distributing and processing information
  • State budget-driven hiring freezes, layoffs and work furloughs causing the understaffing of many child nutrition programs, even though these jobs are funded by the federal nutrition programs
  • Lack of vigorous promotion of the WIC and other child nutrition programs

In February 2014 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on the HHFKA that described a rather frustrating picture of school districts implementing the USDA revised nutrition standards (went into effect during the 2012-13 academic year). Among the more controversial standards is the requirement for students to select either a half cup of fruit or vegetables with their meals.

Local and state authorities told GAO researchers that the “new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements.” GAO notes that participation in the National School Lunch Program declined to 30.7 million students from a peak of 31.8 million students during the 2010-11 academic year. However, the report also noted that the vast majority of the school lunch drop-outs were those who paid full-price for their meals while participation in the free-meal program increased significantly. These data are in line with USDA data that show that the number of low-income students approved for free meals has been increasing while the number of students paying full-price for lunch has been decreasing since 2007.

Many commentators familiar with the school lunch issues focus on the fact that all change takes time, especially when the change may be difficult. Many food service directors and members of the School Nutrition Association who have been lobbying Congress to drop a number of requirements have, in their opinion, not allowed sufficient time for the nutritional changes to become part of children’s eating habits. Nor has there been much outreach to the families involved. Interestingly, the GAO researchers, despite the negative interviews they encountered, did not recommend scaling back the nutritional requirements.

At about the same time as the GAO report, researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health published their study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine of what was occurring in the National School Lunch Program in four low-income elementary and middle schools in the Boston area. The results showed that students were eating 23% more fruit and 16% more vegetables overall and that the new nutritional standards were not causing more food waste, although much food was discarded. The levels of waste in the program, however, were similar to those found in other urban, low-income schools in Massachusetts.

Data from the Food Nutrition Service (FNS) in USDA indicate that very few schools (only .015% of schools nationwide) have dropped out of the National School Lunch Program due to struggles over providing kids healthy foods. An initiative recently enacted by FNS (USDA) is a new grant program to support “Smarter Lunchrooms,” a broad toolkit of easy-to-implement, low-cost, evidence-based strategies that increase consumption of healthier foods and decrease plate waste. Most of these ideas are based on best practices already in place in some states.

The Senate Agricultural Committee has already begun hearings to discuss re-authorizing the Child Nutrition Act (the HHFKA). The latest was held on July 23, 2014 and the key issue was whether re-authorization should include the concept of “flexibility,” which has been favored by the School Nutrition Association and groups like them. It was clear from the hearing that there are at least two distinct views about re-authorization and these involve politics.

On the one hand, some of the problems raised during the hearing (primarily by Republicans and witnesses that have sought their help) related to: 1) “flexibility” in the form of waivers, which are being sought for schools whose students are having difficulty with current standards; 2) the loss of full-price participants in the National School Lunch Program based on the 2014 GAO report lest school lunches are viewed as food for kids from low-income families; 3) meeting taste standards of students who balk at nutritional standards; and, 4) difficulty with implementation where unlicensed staff operate school kitchens.

On the other hand, many witnesses (primarily those defending the HHFKA and a number of Democrats) expressed the feeling that 1) as more kids and schools continue to successfully make the transition to the nutrition standards in HHFKA participation in the program will keep climbing and waivers will not be needed; 2) community eligibility, which covers all students in a high-poverty school district will overcome any problem of perception about full-price vs. free lunches in some schools, while trends of acceptance of nutritional standards among students will overcome those perceptions in other schools; 3) creative experimentation in menu-planning and focusing on local “favorites” as well as using the produce from school gardens would eliminate problems of students’ taste standards; and finally, 4) USDA’s technical assistance, training and continuing education programs, if sought out by school districts, should overcome problems relating to lack of licensure among school kitchen staff. All witnesses agreed that increased subsidies for school meals would be of great assistance.

Based on the foregoing sections, what are the primary goals that should be sought by nonprofits interested in solidarity with and advocacy for children’s hunger as well as good nutrition as they work with others to help in re-authorizing the HHFKA? At a minimum, they should include:

  • Strengthening the Summer Nutrition Programs so they can meet the needs of children and communities when school is out
  • Simplifying the procedures for local agencies and non-profits to sponsor Summer Nutrition Programs and increasing communication about their importance
  • Expanding the reach of the Afterschool Meal Program
  • Supporting the momentum of school breakfast expansion in every state
  • Ensuring that all schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program also participate in the School Breakfast Program
  • Eliminating the co-payment of 30 cents for breakfast, thereby removing one financial barrier for low-income families
  • Ensuring that more children have a healthy start by improving the reach of the WIC program
  • Intensifying the effort to improve “direct certification” systems
  • Improving the implementation of the “community eligibility” system initiated this past year and determining how assistance can be provided to those states and localities that experienced difficulties
  • Focusing attention on the elements of the “change process” to counter efforts to achieve “flexibility” in the form of obtaining waivers from aspects of the law, especially its nutritional components
  • Authorizing funding for grants to school districts to purchase much-needed kitchen equipment, which would support efforts to improve nutrition quality
  • Providing funding for continuing USDA’s current efforts to give technical assistance and training to school districts requesting help in implementing the Child Nutrition Act
  • Increasing funding for the next five years of the Child Nutrition Act.

Blog: House Republicans Gut Nutrition Standards Set by Institute of Medicine

House Republicans Gut Nutrition Standards Set by Institute of Medicine

By Carolyn Burstein
May 30, 2014

House Republicans have inserted language into the 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) appropriations bill that allows schools to opt out of the nutrition standards set by the “2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” (and introduced in schools in the 2012-13 school year) if they can show the programs lose money over a six-month period. Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, led by Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sam Farr (D-CA), had tried on May 29th to strip out several proposals including the waivers to postpone school lunch nutrition standards and the potato industry’s demand that white potatoes be added to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. However, Republicans prevailed and the committee voted Thursday to allow school districts to temporarily opt out of the dietary requirements on a party-line vote.

The 2012 rules activating the nutrition standards require that more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free meals be made available in school lunches, along with a reduction in salt and trans-fats. At the same time, white potatoes were excluded from WIC-approved foods. These changes became law based on the recommendations by the National Academy of Sciences’ highly regarded Institute of Medicine.

As Marion Nestle puts it in her recent post on Food Politics, “As I see it, the food industry couldn’t get its way through the usual rulemaking processes, so it did an end run and got Congress to overturn the work of no less than three committees of the Institute of Medicine.”

Let’s deal with the white potato issue first. The WIC list of approved foods must meet the highest nutritional values and white potatoes, while fine, are less nutritious than some alternative foods, and can be purchased with SNAP funding. The provision to include white potatoes in the WIC-approved list follows strong lobbying by the industry, which is trying hard to undermine healthy reforms made to the WIC program and is hoping to win similar language when the Senate Appropriations Committee considers its own version of the same agriculture bill. It is indeed worried that younger women have moved away from potatoes, but as Mark Bittman of the New York Times said last week: “Let’s recognize that the potato industry can afford to take a step back and let federal dollars enable poor people to choose cauliflower, peas, lettuce and a few other vegetables, and see French fries as an occasional treat, as all of us would be better off doing.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the March of Dimes, among others, have lobbied against the “white potato provision,” but Republican lawmakers, especially those from potato-growing states, want them back in.

The issue of waivers for school lunches affects a larger population. Waiver proponents say that they only want greater flexibility in implementing the standards, but the proposals would more than likely eliminate the standards for those school districts granted waivers because they wouldn’t have to comply with any of the new standards. In addition, there are many ways the waiver could end up being automatically renewed year after year. Allowing waivers would also jeopardize the progress already achieved toward stabilizing childhood obesity.

The issue of waivers can largely be attributed to the lobbying efforts of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national organization that represents both school nutrition professionals and companies that sell food to schools. The SNA has advocated a “pause” in the federal standards because it said that many schools are overwhelmed by the requirements and are seeing dramatically increased costs as well as waste because so many children are throwing uneaten lunches away. Representative Robert Aderholt (R-AL), head of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said the new standards “should not drive local school nutrition programs under water.”

The Washington Post on May 29, 2014, said that former presidents of the SNA have clearly indicated that the organization has come under the greater influence of the handful of large companies that dominate the multibillion-dollar school food industry. Interestingly, as the First Lady has explained, the SNA firmly supported the nutrition standards when the legislation passed in 2010.

DeLauro, Farr and other nutrition advocates believe the assault on the federal nutrition standards is being led by the processed food industry, which will continue to lose hundreds of millions of dollars as schools move toward more fruit, vegetables and whole grain products in their cafeteria. Healthy food initiatives threaten profits and are therefore fought at all costs by the producers of processed food.

Food waste and higher costs for food are indeed problems that must be addressed, but not by relaxing or reducing the standards set for healthier lunches at the same time that our nation is facing a health emergency among our children. We need a solution that will maintain nutrition standards and that helps kids to understand the consequences of what they eat and gets them to choose healthy foods.

One solution to this set of problems is food education, which can be either part of the core curriculum, as advocated by Chef Ann Cooper, who writes “Eat + Run” blogs for U.S. News and World Report, or used as examples in other parts of the curriculum. The key is that kids will never choose an apple over a Pop-Tart, especially if they’ve developed a taste for sugar, salt and fat, unless they’ve learned healthy eating habits. Congressman Sam Farr said recently, “We don’t allow kids to opt out of math or opt out of science because it’s tough. Changing the American diet is fundamental to bringing down health care costs.”

It helps to have certain events, such as food tastings, Junior Chef competitions and salad bar education programs as well as school gardens, to help ease kids’ way into learning about the finer points of healthier meals.

As Chef Ann Cooper says in another blog, if the amount of revenue is decreasing through a lunch program, it is important to remember that the purpose of a school lunch program is not to make money. Its purpose is to feed children nourishing food that gives them energy to focus, concentrate and learn. We do not expect math, science or reading programs to profit a school or even to break even. The same logic we use to explain the significance of money spent on feeding our students’ minds, works for feeding their bodies, too.

Schools should plan for an initial decrease in student participation in a school lunch program after major changes are initiated. After all, transitions are rocky and often difficult. Children who are used to eating French fries will naturally initially balk at a pear replacing salt and fat. But with the education described above, schools will notice a gradual increase in student participation each year as children get used to the changes and develop a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables. With families reinforcing these changes at home, soon healthy food will be the only food the children will know.

Left to their own devices, many children will choose hot dogs, French fries and pizza for every meal, but school should be the place where they learn that this type of choice is a very bad idea. We need to hold the line, even if it’s difficult and some school districts are struggling. Over 90% of school districts are in compliance with the law. There are many ways to help the other 10% rather than to let them ignore the nutrition standards.

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, “If we’re going to close the achievement gap in our country, we need to close the nutrition gap.” Healthy school food is just as important as academics for children’s success at school. Mark Bittman is right on target when he points out that workers preparing and serving school lunches are “under-equipped, under-funded and under-staffed.” This point brings us to another part of the solution – healthy food should be prepared by properly trained and paid staff.

Cafeteria workers must be trained in culinary skills that eschew merely opening cans, unwrapping frozen entrees and reheating food. School districts must invest in both fresh food and new equipment. State and federal funding should be available (through grants?) for training programs to prepare workers for a healthy food regime. USDA-proposed rules in January 2014 would introduce minimum education and experience requirements for food service directors and managers. But only eight hours of training is proposed for staff who actually prepare the food and serve the children. This amount of training time will hardly suffice. But at least it is the beginning of professionalizing the school food staff and should also result in higher pay for these workers.

USDA already provides extensive technical assistance to school districts that are having difficulty meeting the new standards and they have demonstrated willingness to offer flexibility administratively, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The Senate Appropriations Committee, which will take up the USDA bill next week, is requiring the USDA to develop a comprehensive plan to provide enhanced training and technical assistance to help schools comply with the new standards.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IO), who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, issued a statement arguing that the House was putting “the food industry’s bottom line ahead of what’s best for kids.” And there are numerous supporters of this view, including:  The Pew Charitable Trust, which urged the House to drop the provision; First Lady Michelle Obama, telling a group of school nutrition experts “the last thing we can afford to do is play politics with our kids’ health”; the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Food Policy Action, and the National WIC Association; a group of military leaders who have been concerned about the health of military recruits; and hundreds of organizations that have signed a letter to Congress in support of strong nutrition standards, including the African-American Health Alliance, AFSCME, Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Children’s Defense Fund, Food and Water Watch, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, National Consumers League, National Women’s Law Center, NETWORK, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, Union for Reform Judaism, United Methodist Women and numerous state and local organizations.

As you see from the above partial list, NETWORK strongly supports the continuation of “The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids’ Act” in the form in which it passed with bipartisan support in 2010 and the rules developed by USDA in 2012. Nutritious food is an essential component of what it means to “promote the general welfare.”