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The Most Recent Analysis.

Hunger and Food Insecurity in Pennsylvania
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1. What is the scope of the Problem ?  

At the World Food Summit in 1996, the United States – along with 185 other countries – pledged “to reduce the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.” Subsequently, this commitment was incorporated into Healthy People 2010 initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It adopted a specific target – reduce U.S. food insecurity to 6 percent by 2010. In Healthy People 2020, this goal was retained, and a goal to eliminate childhood hunger by 2015 was added--a goal that Barack Obama announced during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Since taking office, President Obama, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and other members of the Administration have reiterated that commitment.

The USDA monitors the progress toward that goal through an annual 18-question supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) – the same survey that provides national data about employment, poverty, etc. The first survey, conducted in April 1995, revealed that 12 percent of U.S. households were food insecure, including 4 percent with hunger. The latest reported survey data, published in September 2011, indicates that 17.2 million U.S. households (14.5 percent) were at risk of hunger (food insecure), including 6.4 million (5.4 percent) with hunger.

Here in Pennsylvania, and based on an average of three years of data (2008–2010), the USDA report indicates that 12.5 percent of Pennsylvania households experienced food insecurity at some point in the 12 months preceding the survey. In nearly one-third of those households (5 percent overall), one or more members also experienced hunger. Translated into human terms, an estimated 494,600 Pennsylvania households were at risk of hunger. In an estimated 168,164 of these households, at least one household member experienced hunger.

When the 2005-07 data are compared with data collected in previous years, we see a mix of findings. Compared with the previous year’s data, food insecurity has not changed at 10 percent. However, hunger is up from 3.3 percent and at the highest level since the USDA began collecting this data in 1995. Compared with 1996-1998 data, which is the best Pennsylvania report on record, food insecurity is up by 20 percent and hunger is up by 31 percent. During 2005-07, Pennsylvania’s rate of food insecurity was 18th best in the U.S; its rate of hunger was 10th. Both of these rankings marked a rise from last year’s report.

Food insecurity is driven by economic trends, especially the decline in the buying power of wages. It translates directly into more people who need help from pantries, food banks and child nutrition programs. As evidenced by the rise in hunger in recent years, charitable efforts are not keeping up with the growing number of people at risk.

2. Who are the “food insecure”?

Data collected in 2009 by Feeding America, the national food bank network, provides the following profile of people who receive food assistance from charitable food providers:

  • 38 percent were children;
  • 8 percent were seniors;
  • 48 percent lived in rural or suburban areas and 52 percent lived in metropolitan areas;
  • 90 percent had a residence; only 40 percent had access to a working car;
  • 74 percent of households had incomes that were below $17,163, the 2008 federal poverty level for a family of three;
  • 41 percent of households received SNAP benefits;
  • 62% of households with at least one child under age 18 participated in NSLP; 53% in SBP; and only 14% in SFSP;
  • 4 percent received welfare; and
  • 36 percent of recipient households included an employed adult.

3. Why has the United States made so little progress toward its goal of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015?

During the late ‘90s the United States made significant progress toward ending hunger and reducing food insecurity. Since that time, we’ve stopped making progress; current levels of food insecurity and hunger are slightly higher than in 2000. With 89 percent of American households food secure, we still are far from our national goal of 94 percent by 2010.

Many factors affect a household’s food insecurity. Income is the most important; hunger is seven times more prevalent in households with annual incomes below 185 percent of poverty as in households with incomes above that range. On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of households with income below the official poverty line are food secure. Thus, while income is a very important factor, it is not the only significant one. Other factors such as family stability,housing, financial management skills, nutrition knowledge and cooking skills, and membership in broader community networks also are important.

Two broader trends have slowed progress toward our goal.

  • Low Wages. From 01-02 to 06-07, Pennsylvania employees at the 10 percent wage level saw their wages decline from $7.86 to $7.81 an hour. This decline occurred even though the minimum wage was increased by $1.10 increase in January, 2007. Approximately 22 percent of employees earn less than a poverty wage (defined as the wage necessary for a full-time, full-year worker to earn $20,650 annually, which is the federal poverty level for a family of four). Meanwhile, the costs of many other essentials, such as housing, energy and medical care, increased significantly. For families caught in the squeeze between low wages and rising costs, the food budget is a place where adjustments can be made. Using emergency food assistance becomes a way for these families to keep food on the table while still paying the bills.
  • Modern Lifestyles. Social changes -- more single-parents families, fewer stay-at-home parents, a faster pace of life, an emphasis on convenience -- encourage the consumption of more prepared foods. These foods tend to be more expensive, thereby adding pressure to the budgets of low-income families.
4. What publicly-funded nutrition programs are available to help?

Within state government, six executive agencies contribute to the fight against hunger and food insecurity through the administration of food and nutrition programs. These programs are supported by a combination of federal and state funds. At the local level, several of these programs are implemented through generous contributions of volunteer labor.

PA Department of Agriculture. PDA administers four programs: the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP), the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). The SFPP is entirely state funded, currently at $18.00 million. The FMNP is currently funded at around $5.15 million ($2.9 federal, $2.25 state). TEFAP is entirely federal funded; the value of product it provides varies from year-to-year and recently has fallen $6.5 million a year. The CSFP also is entirely federally funded at $3 million.

PA Department of Education. PDE administers four child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). All are federally funded without any spending caps. For school meals, PA pays an additional subsidy of at least 10 cents per lunch and 10 cents per breakfast. Schools that offer both lunch and breakfast receive higher reimbursement rates for lunch. Total state funding for school-based meal programs is around $36 million.

PA Department of Health. PDH administers the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Currently it is entirely federally funded at about $150 million. Most of the money is for “food prescriptions” designed to meet specific dietary deficiencies. A part may be spent for nutrition assessment and counseling services offered by WIC staff (about $26 million annually) and administration (about $14 million annually). In the late ‘80s state funds were invested in WIC; that ended in 1997.

PA Department of Aging. Through 52 local area agencies, Aging administers congregate dining, which provides a group meal at a senior center; and home delivered meals, which provides prepared food to homebound persons. These are not entitlement programs and participation depends on the availability of funds. About $50 million in state and $10 million in federal funds pay for these programs.

PA Department of Public Welfare. DPW administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal entitlement that brought over $1.2 billion in grocery purchases to Pennsylvania in SFY 2006-07. The state’s cost is a 50 percent share of administration, or around $110 million annually. DPW also operates the Nutrition Education Program, which last year brought about $15 million in federal funds to the Commonwealth for nutrition education.

PA Department of Community and Economic Development. DCED administers federal funds that come to Pennsylvania via the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG). The CSBG funds are distributed to community action agencies, some of which provide anti-hunger programs. DCED also administers the Neighborhood Assistance Program (NAP), which provides 50 percent tax credits to business that donate to local charities. Food banks are among the key beneficiaries of this Program, which is authorized to dispense $18 million in tax credits annually. DCED also administers funds appropriated by the General Assembly to support the development of supermarkets and other fresh-food retailers in underserved, disadvantaged urban and rural communities.

5. What are key policy issues that decision-makers need to resolve?

A. What can be done to improve nutrition among at-risk children?

Most federal nutrition programs for children are uncapped entitlements. Strategic use of these programs would enable Pennsylvania to use federal dollars to fund nutritional gains. Among the areas to be examined are these.

  • The role of nutrition during the pre-school years of children’s lives. WIC is important and widely used by low-income families. Less well utilized is the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which provides meals to children who are in the care of a child care provider that enrolls in the Program.
  • PA still has 260 lower-income schools that do not provide breakfast. Many school districts shut down their food services over the summer, despite the opportunity to provide meals to low-income children through the Summer Food Service Program. How can we encourage these schools to recognize the link between nutrition, educational achievement and good health?

B. How can Pennsylvania lower barriers that deny access to nutrition programs?

Pennsylvania ’s experience with CHIP demonstrated our ability to achieve high participation in a publicly-funded benefit program. That success can be replicated in our nutrition programs if there is the will to do so.

  • We can utilize eligibility information provided to one program to establish eligibility in another. DPW and the Social Security Administration adopted this approach with SSI recipients and food stamps. Similarly, the National School Lunch Program uses data provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We can do more of this. For example, DPW could align the resource rules between SNAP and a TANF-funded program, thereby simplifying food stamp eligibility.
  • The DPW on-line application via COMPASS has been a positive development. It has created much more flexibility in the application process.

C. How can Pennsylvania achieve a larger impact with its food programs?

In 2004 Governor Rendell reactivated the Inter-Agency Council on Food and Nutrition, a body that was first appointed by Gov. Casey but had been inactive for 10 years. This Council brings together all of the agencies listed on the previous page for the purpose of lowering barriers to access and improving overall effectiveness. To be successful, it needs more visibility and a stronger public endorsement by Governor Rendell.

D. What about the rise in obesity among low-income individuals?

Low-income individuals are subject to the same factors that drive weight trends in general society: advertising, super-sizing, a taste for fast food, infrequent physical labor and exercise, the prevalence of highly processed carbohydrates and sugars in the diet. But they also face additional challenges: alternating periods of high and low food consumption; the need to select inexpensive, high-energy foods that provide more calories for the same cost than fresh items; and less access to high volume grocery outlets that offer a variety of foods at a modest price. How can we encourage more consistency in food supply and more fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets?

E. Do we want the working poor to rely increasingly on charity for a portion of their food supply?

As globalization proceeds, and the buying power of low-skill wages erodes, many more working households are relying on food pantries for a portion of their food. What we used to call “emergency food” has become a regular monthly source of food for low-wage families. If unchecked, this trend is likely to continue.

  • In response, should we continue to strengthen the charitable food distribution network?
  • Alternatively, we could enable low-wage families to obtain more of their food through the existing market structure (grocery stores). Effective tools to do that are available: index the minimum wage, strengthen earned income tax credits, improve access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, improve access to CHIP for children’s health care, improve access to child care subsidies, and improve access to education and skills training for adults with families.


PA Hunger Action Center (July 2012)

Food security is defined as “assured access at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life, with no need for recourse to emergency food sources or other extraordinary coping behaviors to meet basic food needs”. People who frequently worry about the source of their next meal, or who need the help of food pantries or of extended family members in order to eat, are “food insecure”. Hunger is defined as “the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food due to the recurrent and involuntary lack of access to food”.

According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, the monthly rates of food insecurity and hunger are just over half the annual rates. Thus, from mid-November to mid-December 2005, 5.9 percent of American households were food insecure and 2.2 percent of households included someone who experienced hunger. See Household Food Security in the United States, 2005 (Nord, et al. November 2006).

Household Food Security in the United States, 2000

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Recent Hunger Studies/Papers

FRAC's Ending Childhood Hunger by 2015: The Essential Strategies for Achieving the President's Goals

USDA's Household Food Security in the United States 2010

FRAC's Food Hardship Report 2011

Children's HealthWatch's
The Real Cost of a Healthy Diet 2011

State Trends in Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program Eligibility and Participation
Among Elderly Individuals 2010

FRAC's State of States - PA, 2011

FRAC's A Half Empty Plate: Fruit & Vegetable Affordability & Access Challenges in America, 2011

Children's HealthWatch's
The SNAP Vaccine: Boosting Children's Health

FRAC's School Breakfast Scorecard 2010-11

FRAC's Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation 2012

FRAC's CACFP Participation Trends 2012

Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap 2010

Feeding America's Hunger Study 2010

Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center
email: info@pahunger.org
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