Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
A recent USDA report says 17 million American households struggled to feed family members last year, putting food insecurity at near-record levels for the fifth straight year. Meanwhile, the current food stamps program, now known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is being scaled back. Increases made at the height of the recession will sunset in November, and Congress is weighing billions more in cuts to the program. We look at what’s being done to address hunger in our region and nationally.
- Molly McCloskey Director, No Kid Hungry for Share Our Strength’s Maryland Campaign
- Stacy Dean Vice President for Food Assistance Policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
- Alexandra Ashbrook Director, D.C. Hunger Solutions, Food and Action Research Center
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's a Food Wednesday conversation about the lack of adequate food. According to a recent USDA report, 17 million American households struggle to put food on the table last year. That puts food insecurity at near record levels for the fifth straight year. Those numbers include one in five children who are at risk of hunger in the U.S., including right here in the nation's capitol, one of the richest areas in the country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMeanwhile, the current food stamps program, now known as SNAP, the Supplemental, Nutrition Assistance Program, is being scaled back. Increases to the program made at the height of the recession will sunset in November, and Congress is weighing billions more in cuts. Joining us to discuss this is Stacy Dean, Vice President for Food Assistance Policy at the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities. Stacy Dean, thank you for joining us.
MS. STACY DEANThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Molly McCloskey. She is Share Our Strengths Maryland campaign director for No Kid Hungry. Molly McCloskey, thank you for joining us.
MS. MOLLY MCCLOSKEYIt's my pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd Alexandra Ashbrook is the Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit in the District with the Food and Action Research Center. Al, it's good to see you again.
MS. ALEXANDRA ASHBROOKThanks for having me and tackling this critical issue.
NNAMDIIt is, indeed, a critical issue and if you would like to comment or have a question about it, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Were you aware? Do you even believe it's true that one in five children, in this country, doesn't get enough to eat and that hunger remains at near record levels for the fifth straight year? Give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send us email to email@example.com. Stacy Dean, let's start with the USDA report that came out last week.
NNAMDICan you talk a little bit about what that report actually says?
DEANWell, the report is a joint report from USDA and Census and it comes from a survey where Americans were asked about their ability to access enough food and whether they struggled to afford food. And there are ten questions in the survey for most families, and 18 questions for households with children. So, they really do try to dig in and understand what is it that got in the way. Did you skip meals? Were you forced to -- trying to pay other bills and unable to meet your basic food needs? Did parents skip meals in order to ensure kids ate?
DEANSo, there's a lot of scrutiny. They dig in to identify who are those families that struggle to afford or just to put basic food on the table every day. And the results are shocking.
NNAMDITell us about some specific categories, because the report says that 17.6 million households, including 49 million people lacked access to adequate food at some point in the year 2012. Let's start with seniors. What trends are we seeing with seniors?
DEANWell, seniors, the good news about seniors is that that's a group that, overall, has lower rates of food insecurity than the general public, which I think we take comfort in. But, unfortunately, it does appear that since about 2008, 2009, the trend amongst seniors is rising a bit from seven and a half per cent of households with seniors to close to nine per cent are struggling to afford enough food.
NNAMDIThis number hasn't changed in a while, but some people will still find it shocking. Children. How are children fairing nationally and in our region?
DEANWell, as you pointed out, one in five children, or just over 20 percent of children, live in households that were food insecure in 2012. Again, there the good news, I guess -- it's important to look for -- or, I think that helps us explain what's going on is the children themselves were often shielded from hunger. Their parents took extraordinary measures. Themselves skipping food, themselves reducing, you know, reducing the meals that they were putting on the table so that they could protect their kids.
DEANBut we have close to a million children who were very food insecure themselves, meaning that they experienced, with greater consistency and more depth, hunger in 2012.
NNAMDIAlex, the term food insecure is used in many of these reports. What does that term actually mean?
ASHBROOKWell, the term means a lack of access to consistent, dependable food sources that are necessary for an active and healthy living.
NNAMDIMolly, some point to the fact that the number of households that are food insecure, as Alex described the term, have not increased, and in fact, have decreased slightly, and some would say, well, isn't that good news?
MCCLOSKEYIt's not good news because we hit a historic high five years ago, and we've been stable right around that high, and, yet, that's the highest we've ever been in history. So, until our economy recovers, we're not likely to see good news in this area.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you think government assistance programs like food stamps are the best way to combat hunger? Give us a call. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet at kojoshow. We're discussing food insecurity. There's a lot of variations, Stacy, in the number of people relying on federal assistance by state. Can you talk about that?
DEANSure. Well, let's start, I guess, with you were talking about food stamps or the SNAP program, which is a federal program and basically has very consistent federal rules. But, we have some states reaching nearly all eligible individuals. D.C. or Vermont is an example of a state that, I think, hits that category. And other states, like California or Colorado, unfortunately, are reaching much lower shares, just over half of eligible people. That means that needy, struggling families, recently unemployed workers or seniors, who have incomes low enough to qualify for the program, aren't getting its help.
DEANAnd that is a conundrum for those of us who work on the program. And for the states that administer it. In some cases, it's just harder to apply. There may be fewer offices, requiring longer distances, maybe fewer workers so that those who are applying have to wait hours to get the help for which they're eligible. And in other cases, it may be stigma. Seniors, for example, may not understand that if they apply and participate that -- some think that they're taking food away from others, which is a complete myth, and I certainly would encourage any low income senior who thinks they might be eligible to apply.
NNAMDIAlex Ashbrook, Molly McCloskey, you focus on the District of Columbia and Maryland. What are we seeing here in terms of hunger, particularly among children in the district, Alex?
ASHBROOKWell, in D.C., there's good and bad news. First, the good news is that if we look at our overall food insecurity rates throughout the great recession, D.C. was actually below the national average, hovering around 12 per cent of the population. And that's a real testament to some of the programs Stacy was just referencing. The city has made great efforts to connect eligible families to the food stamp program. The D.C. council passed the Healthy Schools Act, which is not only connecting more children to breakfast, but improving the quality of food.
ASHBROOKWe have the number one D.C. free summer meals program, the number one free summer meals program in the country. But, the bad news is that it's still deplorable and a huge problem that one out of eight households is struggling with hunger, and when we drill down deeper and look at the number of households with children that are facing food hardship, we see that it's about 37 per cent of households with children reported an inability to pay for the food that they or their children needed throughout the course of the year. So, we still have a huge hunger problem in the nation's capital.
NNAMDIAnd Molly, what are we seeing in Maryland?
MCCLOSKEYWe have a very similar situation. While Maryland, the good news is, we fall below national averages, we still, in the wealthiest state in the nation, have nearly 280,000 kids dependent on SNAP benefits for their nutrition needs now. The extra good news is that Governor O'Malley has committed, since 2008, to ending childhood hunger in the state. And called together a very broad private/public partnership of agencies, businesses, philanthropists and charities to put both financial and personal attention on the hunger issue, and we've made tremendous progress.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned a politician, because in recent presidential campaigns, there seems to have been so much of an emphasis on the middle class and its needs and desires that one often thinks that the poor are forgotten in the process. So, the fact that you mentioned the Governor, who has dedicated himself to this politician, is an indication that there is some concern by elected officials. But, one wonders just how much there is because, Stacy, the main supplemental nutrition assistance program known as SNAP replaced the food stamp program, and we're gonna talk a little bit about the problems that SNAP may be having soon. But can you talk about what that assistance entails and who qualifies to receive this help?
DEANWell, sure. SNAP provides a basic nutrition benefit through the form of a debit card to low income families, seniors and people with disabilities who can't afford an adequate diet. Its purpose is to basically shore up and empower families to be able to afford a basic meal. Its average benefit is currently less than $1.50 per person per meal. So, it does quite a lot with a very small benefit. And while it certainly isn't perfect, it does an admirable job at addressing hunger and food insecurity.
DEANIt reduces poverty, reduces food insecurity and is just an essential and vital form of support to struggling families. And I think it's also important to communities. Economists from across the spectrum say SNAP is good for the economy. For every dollar spent, it provides about $1.70 in economic activity, and that's why the Congress and the administration viewed it as one component of the economic recovery and economic stimulus. And increased its benefits to help families and to help the economy.
NNAMDIMolly, you feel that there is quite a great deal of misinformation out there about the SNAP program. What are some of the misconceptions?
MCCLOSKEYThere are those who think that SNAP actually contributes to folks not pursuing jobs, or that SNAP perpetuates the cycle of poverty. In fact, we know that it ends it. We know that 92 per cent of those on SNAP are kids, the elderly, disabled or are in working families that, as families can reduce their anxiety and the stress caused by seeking food, their food insecurity, they can make health choices, which puts them in a better place to enter the work force. And actually keeps them out of a level of destitution.
NNAMDIWhat do you think can be done to improve the situation of food insecurity in America? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Do you even care? What do you feel causes people to be food insecure? 800-433-8850. Here now is Scott in Silver Spring, Maryland. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTHey Kojo. I think that SNAP is a great program. I'm a big supporter of it. But I do find myself thinking about the question of food desert. And, you know, the fact that, you know, there is this, I think, misconception that a lot of people who are on SNAP have the capability to go out to a grocery store and buy, you know, load up on nutritious food or lobster tails, or, you know, all of these kinds of lies, really, that we've heard about SNAP recipients.
SCOTTSo, I'm wondering how we can incentivize grocery stores or markets to relocate the food desert so that people will have access to nutrition extended beyond maybe the local convenience store.
ASHBROOKYeah, that's a great question. One of the things we've been working on in D.C. is following the suit of Pennsylvania that has fresh food financing initiatives is looking at policies to draw in full service grocery stores into the city and making the case that even in neighborhoods that are typically not prime examples of where a supermarket would go, there is income to be had. That people are going to use their SNAP benefits and other benefits to purchase food.
ASHBROOKAnd there are business opportunities if the government takes a role in looking at ways of improving zoning and parceling land so that people can readily get into those neighborhoods. So it's certainly critical that people have access to healthy affordable food in their neighborhoods so they're not paying a poverty tax of having to travel outside their jurisdiction to get food.
NNAMDITo what extent does that contribute to food insecurity?
ASHBROOKIt's certainly a factor because money that people would otherwise be able to use to buy food, they have to put to other needs such as paying to get to a supermarket miles away, devoting time that they don't have to do that. You know, getting child care if they have young kids who can't make the bus trip.
DEANRight. Money on cab fare that otherwise could be spent on food or paying for more expensive milk and vegetables in a small convenience store that has quite a bit of a markup because they know they have a corner on the market.
MCCLOSKEYI just want to note that SNAP education and nutrition education is really critical in this process to help families learn how to shop for healthy affordable meals. We work extensively with families receiving SNAP benefits on a program called Cooking Matters. How do I shop healthy? How do I cook affordable meals that my kids are going to like? Because, as Stacy said, if my budget is $1.50 a meal, lobster is not on the table.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Scott. We've got to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line, we will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. What role do you think nonprofits and others in the private sector should play in addressing hunger, 800-433-8850? Or send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing hunger and food insecurity in America with Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit in the district with the Food and Action Research Center. Molly McCloskey is Share our Strength's Maryland Campaign director for No Kid Hungry. And Stacy Dean is vice president for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Molly, most government-assisted programs are limited and contingent on things like recipients finding or looking for work. What is required to receive SNAP benefits?
MCCLOSKEYWell, Stacy's going to be your statistical expert on this, but essentially a family has be below 130 percent of the poverty level in order to receive any level of SNAP benefit.
NNAMDIStacy, anything to add to that?
DEANRight, absolutely. Families also -- or those who are able to work who aren't already working on the program need to register for work and be willing to look. And states' design work engagement programs that suit the local economic conditions and the work opportunities that they have available in their jurisdictions.
NNAMDIThere are a few things going on when it comes to the SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. First, can we talk about the increases that went into effect during the recession and what's happening to those?
DEANSure. So congress, as a part of the economic stimulus package or the Recovery Act put in place a temporary boost in SNAP benefits for two purposes. One, we had millions of families struggling. And of course losing their jobs and turning to SNAP benefits for help. And the notion was the boost there would help them. But more important was the fact that economists knew that when you give SNAP benefits to households, they immediately go out and spend them. And we were at a time in the economy where demand was contracting. And the whole idea of the package was that they wanted to put some juice back in the economy right away.
DEANAnd as I mentioned earlier, economists from across the political spectrum agree that $1 in SNAP spending generates about $1.70 in economic activity. That temporary increase is about to end and unfortunately it's ending very abruptly. We are cliffing household's benefits rather than letting the benefit increase gradually reduce. And so all households will see a very significant decrease. I think...
DEANNovember 1. So for example, all households of three on the SNAP or food stamp program will see a $29 a month cut in their benefits on November. And we were just talking before the show, how many bags of groceries or how many meals does that translate into? Molly, you had a thought.
MCCLOSKEYFor a family of four if you divide that $36 that they'll use by $1.50 per meal, you're looking at skipping 20 meals. Twenty meals getting affected by this cut. And you start to wonder, who's going to skip that meal? Is it the child, the fourth grader with the test the next day? Is it the breast-feeding mom? Is it the diabetic grandfather? Twenty meals have come out of their pocket.
NNAMDIWhat will it mean for the average family here in Washington, D.C., Alex?
ASHBROOKWell, we're anticipating a lot of confusion for families to one, get the message in the context of what typically happens in the SNAP program. Every October benefits are adjusted to reflect cost of living increases. So people may have their benefits go up slightly in October. And then come November, there're going to be across the board cuts. So it's going to have a devastating impact on families' ability to purchase food.
ASHBROOKWe know that SNAP, while it's a miracle of public policy, doesn't get you through the entire month. And cutting SNAP is going to have real hardship to people throughout the city.
NNAMDIThere's a particular challenge here in the District of Columbia where the cost of everything including groceries is very high. So can you talk a little bit about the SNAP Challenge?
ASHBROOKSure. Well, the SNAP Challenge is a way to raise awareness about the struggles people face on SNAP and also the important of the program. So what we've done in the past, and our parent organization Food Research and Action Center has a toolkit to help groups do this, is the SNAP Challenge where you pledge to eat on a typical SNAP allotment for a week, which is $30. So when you think about what you can actually purchase for $30, you know, many people may spend $30 a week just on coffee.
ASHBROOKIt's an exercise to get people to understand the tough choices people are making day in and day out when they're on SNAP. And to debunk the myths that people are going out and buying lobster and caviar. You certainly can't do that when you're depending $1...
NNAMDII know a number of local elected officials who accepted that challenge for a week and then talked about how difficult it was to be able to live on that.
ASHBROOKYes. Representative Norton did the SNAP Challenge, Council member Cheh. Mayor Gray's done it in the past and it's a real eye-opening experience for all who do it. But it's also a very artificial experience that no way represents what people go through day in and day out who are on the SNAP Challenge every day of their life.
NNAMDI...365 days a year. Stacy Dean.
DEANWell, and I just wanted to add to that, it's so important in a city like the district where for elected officials to, I think, go through an experience like that. One in two children in the district are SNAP participants. And it just speaks to the incredible level of poverty that we have here. And the, you know, incredible importance of SNAP to ensure that children are well fed and have a bridge to a better future.
NNAMDIWe did a show about this with Montgomery County council member Valerie Ervin and D.C. council member Mary Cheh. Back in February they both did -- undertook that challenge, right Molly?
MCCLOSKEYCouncil Member Ervin's been one of our great leaders across the state on this issue. And I think it's critical to point out that while folks make assumptions about where poverty exists and where hunger may exist, there's not a single county in the state of Maryland which does not have hungry children.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Judith in Annapolis, Md. Judith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JUDITHHi. Thank you for taking my call. We've been talking a lot about children in the last half hour or so. I am a single 32-year-old female. And right before Christmas I had to get emergency surgery. I am a working adult and I was on food stamps for about three months because I couldn't work for one of those. And, you know, sometimes, you know, you just fall on dire straits. So I'm wondering with the proposed cut in government benefits for the SNAP program where would that leave, you know, single working adults who simply need to be on SNAP for a few months to make ends meet? I can take the answer off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDIOkay, Stacy Dean.
DEANWell, I think what Judith -- Judith, thank you for transitioning us to talking about what the House Republican leadership is talking about. These would be new changes on top of the cuts that we've already mentioned. Very unfortunately they are actually talking about targeting the group that you're describing, Judith, the group that you found yourself in, which is childless adults who are unemployed. Of which we have many given the current state of this economy.
DEANSo the House Republican proposal that is apparently going to be taken up next week would cut food assistance -- terminate it completely for at least 4 million low income people, including some of the poorest Americans, many children, seniors and frankly even veterans.
NNAMDINow, can we be clear? It's my understanding the House voted to cut $20 billion from SNAP but it's not proposing to double those cuts to $40 billion?
DEANActually, what happened was the House took up a package that included $20 billion in cuts. And that -- as a part of a farm bill package. That bill was not able to be passed out of the House for multiple reasons. But for some extreme members of the Republican caucus the reason they gave was it did not cut SNAP enough. As a result Majority Leader Cantor is coming back with a proposal that would target SNAP for some $40 billion in cuts and again would remove at least 4 million people.
DEANTo me it's just extraordinary, particularly in this economic time, that we would target unemployed individuals and families just struggling to get back on their feet. This program is an essential part of -- it's a stepping stone, a bridge to a better future.
NNAMDIHere's what Mary in Reston, Va. has to say about that. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYThank you. And I'm glad I had a few minutes wait because I've calmed down a little bit. But I just get angry thinking about the richest country in the world and we have so many children going to be hungry. Meanwhile, the Pentagon -- and I know we need a strong defense, but everybody recognizes that their budget is bloated. And it could -- they could trim billions of dollars off of that and feed these hungry children.
MARYI know that's simplistic, but I really don't understand how the Tea Party conservatives could sleep at night. That they can, you know, make sure their cronies in the military get every little penny they need, every new system, every new, you know, radar or airplanes or whatever and then cut food to our hungry kids in this country. I just think they're criminal and I would like to prosecute them.
NNAMDIWell, Mary, it's interesting because I'll ask Stacy Dean to talk about this because people who are for these cuts generally see them as a handout to the poor. But Stacy Dean points out that some economists point out that additional spending on SNAP can benefit the economy. Talk about that.
DEANWell, absolutely. Again, if you're about the recovery, and I would like to think that all elected officials are, withdrawing SNAP from the economy withdraws economic activity. So that's just not a good choice. I just want to go back to Mary's point about trying to see the bigger picture here. And one of the reasons that the folks proposing the cuts give is that we need to get our fiscal house in order, that they do in fact connect these cuts to a broader desire for deficit reduction.
DEANAnd while I certainly think long term fiscal sustainability is crucial, we have to bring our principles and morals to those choices. And I think that it's possible, and several bipartisan presidential commissions on the deficit agree, we can reduce the deficit, address our long term debt without increasing hunger and poverty. That should be a core principle.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mary. We move on now to John in Bethesda, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, how you doing? I have a quick question. I'm a conservative Democrat but at the same time I wanted to ask if there's any evidence that in the lack of a SNAP payment that an actual meal would be foregone, that in the end wouldn't somebody eventually out of basically self preservation and things -- excuse me -- not pay the cable TV or find somewhere else to save? I mean, are -- is there any study that's been done on that, that in the absence of this, that people will find a way to buy food at least.
MCCLOSKEYThat's certainly not true for children who don't have that option. They don't get to make those choices. They don't get to choose between penicillin for their strep infection and breakfast or between transportation to school or an activity or even participating in any activity over food. It also assumes that there's some level of disposable income, when most often the case is there simply is not enough money. This is not an either/or decision at all. This is a, I don't have enough to do this or this or that.
MCCLOSKEYAnd so the benefits -- remember this is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This isn't intended to pay completely for anyone's food budget and yet we know in the most dire circumstances, it's the only thing that does.
NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from another John, John on the phone, who says -- addressing this remark to John on the phone. The Tweet that we got from John says, "Food insecurity has to be one of the great moments in terrible messaging. Just call it hunger. People care about that."
NNAMDIAnd we won't be a bit confused about food insecurity. But the reason I raise that question is John on the phone seemed to be implying or certainly inferred that for some people hunger might be a choice, Alex.
ASHBROOKWell, that's certainly not the case in our work in D.C. People are stretched. And if you look at the federal poverty guidelines for a family of four, it's $23,000. Try living on that in Washington, D.C. I agree with the comment about hunger. It's much more...
NNAMDIEvocative of what people are going through.
ASHBROOK...evocative of what's going on. And it sort of softens the impact by calling it food insecurity. But it is people who are looking day in and day out for what their next meal's going to be in some instances.
NNAMDIHere now is another John, this time in Chantilly, Va. John, your turn.
JOHNYes. Basically I have a comment about potentially one of the big problems the public perception is, there's a lot of perception of fraud. And pretty much I and everyone I know and if you go online, you can easily see examples of fraud. Let me give you an example. I was in a shoppers and someone was buying six lobsters and they used a SNAP card. And I wondered if, were they having a party? And they commented to me that lobster was the only food their dog would eat.
JOHNSo these examples kind of give the system a dim view. How is this person who apparently can't earn enough to eat yet -- and requires public assistance, yet be feeding lobster to their animals? And their animals are eating significantly better than the taxpayers who are paying for this program.
NNAMDII'll allow my panelists to respond, John, but I don't know if you know that the last three governors of Illinois all are -- all were sentenced to jail. Does that suggest to you that every politician in America is a crook?
JOHNWell, no. And I agree that...
NNAMDIBut you're suggesting that having seen one person buying lobster with a SNAP card, you seem to be suggesting that this might be a widespread problem.
JOHNIf it were just me, I'd agree with you, but it's not. You can pretty much poll...
JOHN...people and everyone sees examples of this. And you can go online and there's plenty of examples online.
NNAMDII'll allow my panelists to respond. First you, Stacy Dean.
DEANWell, I guess I can't respond to that particular example, but I think Majority Leader Cantor has taken a similar approach of trying to repaint the face of the typical SNAP participant as a white unemployed young man who chooses to surf (unintelligible) work. And somehow SNAP is able to afford him that lifestyle. You know, it's extraordinary to me. There are 48 million people on this program. Nearly half of them are children. The vast majority of them are struggling with extremely, extremely low incomes.
DEANSome children on this program live with income at $1 a day. That is the very unfortunate face of poverty in this country and the individuals who participate in the program. And that's just the reality we need to confront and address.
NNAMDII guess I said that to John because in my neighborhood when I go to the supermarket, I see the same thing that John sees. But I do understand that, as you say, there are 48 million people in this program. And that the individual or two that I may see in my supermarket from time to time is not representative of those 48 million people. But it's not my turn to speak on this issue. I have guests here. John, thank you very much for your call. Here is George in Falls Church, Va. George, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GEORGEHello, Kojo. Thank you for taking my comment. I just wanted to respond to the lady who is blaming the military spending all the money.
GEORGEI would like to point out that it's the executive branch and the legislative branch that determines that budget, and so they are responsible for all that spending, not the Air Force, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, A. B, the Veteran's Administration right now is anywhere from one to like six years behind in serving our veterans from Vietnam, Korea, World War II, much less, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq.
NNAMDIWell, I don't want to get drawn into the analogy made by one caller about the spending we do on the military, George, because that's something we hear a lot. What I do want to get drawn into is trying to take a more comprehensive approach to the issue that we're talking about, because both you, Alex Ashbrook, and Molly McCloskey say that it's not just food assistance that we should be talking about here, but affordable child care, full-time jobs, transportation. Talk a little bit about that.
ASHBROOKYeah. Well, we all know that we can address the symptoms of hunger by connecting people to the federal nutrition programs, and those are having a real impact on people's ability to access nutritious food. But if we really want to solve hunger, we have to address the underlying conditions that are fueling hunger, and that's poverty. So comprehensive strategies that look at how we can raise minimum wage, both locally and nationally, how we can increase income supports for people who are working by child care subsidies, for quality child care, for earned income tax credits for child tax deductions, how we can get people the ability to compete for jobs that pay a living wage.
ASHBROOKThese are all strategies that we have to address as a nation, and one of the other issues is how do we get affordable food into neighborhoods across the United States.
MCCLOSKEYWhen we surround kids with healthy meals where they live, learn, and play, we make it possible for families to attend to those other issues. When families don't have to spend their money because we've created access to food for young people, they can seek transportation to a job training program and enter the workforce more successfully. They can seek additional education. They can get the healthcare that makes them more stable, and eventually leads to the kind of economic recovery -- remember, low income families are going to be the last to see the benefits of the slow recovery we're having at this stage.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there, or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Does your child's school offer free meals? How does that work? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIBack to our conversation on hunger or food insecurity with Molly McCloskey. She is Share Our Strength Maryland campaign director for No Kid Hungry. She's surrounded by all things orange today. Why is this, Molly?
MCCLOSKEYOh, because September is Go Orange month, when we take over as an organization, and really as a collective of hunger organizations to raise awareness about the 16 million children facing this issue to help people understand that as you say, you connect their neighborhoods to the world, we connect the world of the antihunger initiatives to their neighborhoods. Thirty different television channels change their logos this weekend to raise awareness about hunger, and that's everybody from BET to the Food Network to HGTV, my own personal favorite.
NNAMDIAnd I'm looking at an orange water bottle, an orange bag, and an orange-clad Molly McCloskey in front of me here today. Also in studio with us is Alexandra Ashbrook, the director of DC Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit in the District with the Food and Action Research Center. Stacy Dean is vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Stacy, school lunches are a big part of the solution, including federal initiatives that are helping. Can you talk about that?
DEANAbsolutely. While SNAP is the largest child nutrition program, the school meal programs through breakfast, lunch, after school snacks and suppers can really play a crucial role in making sure that children have access to the basic nutrition they need to learn and thrive. So in high-poverty neighborhoods and areas, the ability to offer meals universally free, so for example, here in the District breakfast is free to all District residents. It's a wonderful, wonderful complement to what families are able to do for their kids.
NNAMDIA lot of school meal programs now aim to eliminate some of the biggest barriers to participation. Molly, can you talk about that?
MCCLOSKEYWe believe ending hunger starts with breakfast, and while we do have tremendous participation in the school lunch program, those same young people are eligible in many cases for breakfast and fewer than half of them on average are participating. And so No Kid Hungry and other organizations around the state of Maryland works with schools and districts and wonderful school superintendants to move breakfast out of the cafeteria and into the classroom.
MCCLOSKEYWhen breakfast is served in the classroom, nearly three-quarters of the young people eat it because it eliminates the stigma, it eliminates the problem with last buses, and it creates a social experience for those young folks.
NNAMDIHow does it work in DC, Alex?
ASHBROOKWell, in DC, because of the Healthy Schools Act, we've seen breakfast transform across the city. Many schools are now serving breakfast in the classroom, and others are using alternative service models so that kids don't have to get to school before it begins to access breakfast. As a result, breakfast is increased by about 30 percent. Thirty-one thousand students in DC are starting the day with a healthy breakfast, and one of the things we're also seeing is that school breakfast is as close an educational magic bullet as there is.
ASHBROOKAcross the country, when kids are taking tests, you can be sure that administrators are saying make sure to eat a breakfast today. They're bringing breakfast into the schools. So it makes sense from every standpoint to make sure kids each day are getting the breakfast they need to achieve.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Rebecca in Sykesville, Md., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAHi. I'm on the SNAP program myself, and I'm on disability so I can't work, and the one guy called -- I can't even afford to buy food at the end of the month. And my mother works as a school food service in Carroll County and she said a lot of those kids, if they didn't have those meals, they wouldn't have any meals at all. So -- and Carroll County is not a bad off place to live, you know?
NNAMDIHere's Molly McCleskey.
MCCLOSKEYYou reminded me of a terrific story, actually, an unfortunate story out of Anne Arundel County. One of our principals there, Sean McElheney, was scoring state tests, and as he looked at the first page of the state test, the young personal had written, can't think, don't care. And when he called that young man down to his office, he found out it was because he hadn't eaten since lunch at school the previous day. The educational outcome is staggering.
NNAMDIRebecca, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Brett in Gaithersburg, Md. Brett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRETTHi. My name is Brett. I run a food recovery nonprofit in Montgomery County, Md. called Nourish Now, and I think food recovery is a big part of everything else that's going on and working together with a lot of different people to end hunger in the country.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much. Go ahead.
BRETTAlso, there's a lot of good things going on in Montgomery County. Montgomery County just launched a food recovery working group that several nonprofits came together and local businesses to look at the issue of hunger in the county, and how recovering food can play a part. And so, there's a lot of good things going on in Montgomery County. Yesterday we were able to rescue over 800 pounds of food that would otherwise be thrown away and, you know, there was a lot of families that are getting help from many different great nonprofits like Manna and other places.
BRETTSo a lot of good collaboration going on in Montgomery County and it's exciting to go orange. We went orange this month just to support the national initiative to end hunger in America, so it's a very exciting time.
NNAMDIBrett, thank you very much for your call. We got a tweet from Terry who says, "Wages haven't kept up with the increasing costs of food and rent. We need a higher minimum wage in the states if the U.S. Congress won't do it." And we got from a caller who -- an email from Crystal who says, "The Living Wage Bill in the District of Columbia -- " let me see if I can find it again. "The Living Wage Bill will go a long way to addressing hunger issues in D.C. It's outrageous that people working at companies making billions in profits go hungry." Care to comment on that, Alex?
ASHBROOKWell, it's certainly important to look at comprehensive strategies to lift wages, and DC Hunger Solutions works to support across the board increases in the federal minimum wage and the local minimum wage, which in DC a dollar above the federal minimum wage. We really aren't going to address the root causes of hunger until we deal with poverty, and wages are a piece of that, but it's a complicated issue requiring lots of different avenues for solutions.
NNAMDIHere is now Jane in Gaithersburg, Md. Jane, your turn.
JANEHi. Good afternoon, Kojo. I was a long,, long, long time listener of yours and of the station's, and for a long time while I was able, I was a supporter. The last three years I've not been able to do that because we've been in an economic downturn of our own in our family, and some of it was health crisis and my mom lost her house, and it was just one of those things, and it's one of those stories that you hear over and over and over again. I'm certainly not unique.
JANEBut what makes me really sad is to hear people call and say why don't they just not pay their cable bill? I don't have a cable bill anymore. I don't have an Internet bill. I don't have those things because I can't afford them. I'm feeding a family of six on $636 a month with -- as a supplement. I mean, I was always a good shopper. I was also economic. I was always careful. But now it's critical. I mean, it really is a matter of at one time a choice between my mom's chemotherapy medication and whether or not we had meat that night.
JANESo people need to understand that this isn't somebody gaming the system. This is somebody -- that is a family that needs help, and we got help, but it is so minimal. I mean, you're grateful for what we have, don't get me wrong, but it is almost impossible, and I'm so, so grateful that we are now just beginning to start to work again. It is a blessing and I am grateful for that, but we have a long road ahead of us.
NNAMDIWell, Jane, we're very grateful that you called, and good luck to you. We got an email from Alisha who says, "Wondering what your guests have to say about the role of feeding America and the rest of the non-profit sector role in this problem of child hunger. How does it work with SNAP and government programs?" Molly?
MCCLOSKEYIt really takes all of us. This is about a public/private partnership. The power of SNAP and the role of the federal government to provide that baseline of support for families is critical, and yet private agencies can go a long way in driving access to those programs, ensuring that those families who are eligible, ensuring that those families receiving other types of assistance are aware of what's available to them.
DEANCan I jump in on this, Molly?
DEANFeeding America and the entire emergency food network are crucial partners to all of us. We work together all the time, but I think they would be the first to say that they are extraordinary critics of the cuts proposed because they know that SNAP is the frontline of defense against hunger, and the concept that removing four million people from this program is something that private charity can absorb, they are the first out the door along with many religious organizations to say absolutely not.
DEANThere's no way we can fill this role. It is absolutely a partnership but government is first and foremost, through SNAP, the front line of defense against hunger.
NNAMDIBut Alex, can you talk a little bit about the role of the private sector including nonprofits of course is a crucial part of addressing the issues we're talking about. How does it work in DC?
ASHBROOKWell, there are some gaps in the federal nutrition safety net programs. For instance, the callers have reiterated the point that SNAP, as a miracle of public policy, still doesn't get you through the month. So at the end of the month, a mother is making is making a choice to not eat for herself so that her kids can get fed. In the summer the problem is even more dire when kids across the county lose access to free school meals.
ASHBROOKSo there's an important role of charity to fill in that gap, but charity cannot do it alone. We need to maintain the structures of these fabulous federal programs so that they are entitlement programs, and anyone who is ineligible can access the help when they need it. One thing I just wanted to add was...
ASHBROOK...there's sort of this public perception that people are on SNAP forever. And the average amount of time that someone is on SNAP is around nine months. It's a program that's there for an emergency. It's a lifeline, and it's really responsible for us not seeing people in deep hunger in this country, and it's working. It's just outrageous that on the Hill they're proposing $40 billion of cuts to this program.
NNAMDIGot an email from John in Silver Spring who says, "With the sequester and belt tightening everywhere, it's hard to imagine that entitlement programs are going to be the top of the agenda. What do the guests think the prospects are for keeping benefits where they are now?"
DEANWell, I think it's our job to make sure that they stay there and that we in fact do better by struggling families. I think there's very stark choices in front of members of Congress about, as I said earlier, how do we address our long-term deficit and debt issues, yet without increasing hunger or poverty. It can be done.
NNAMDIStacy Dean is vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Stacy, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMolly McCloskey is Share our Strengths Maryland campaign director for No Kid Hungry. Molly, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Alexandra Ashbrook is the director of DC Hunger Solutions. It's nonprofit in the District with the Food and Action Research Center. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein with help from Stefannie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer, Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs, and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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