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Food Economy

Lives in the Balance: Appalachian Food Banks and the Lasting Wake of the Government Shutdown

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Photo: Courtesy of MANNA Foodbank

With a new federal spending bill signed into law, a national emergency over illegal immigration at the country’s southern border declared and the second government shutdown in as many years now in the rearview, it might be tempting to think that the woes of the government furlough are behind us. But for many Appalachian communities the ripple effect can still be felt, particularly among the most vulnerable.

The 35-day shutdown lasted from December 22, 2018, through January 25 of this year, costing the federal government over $6 billion.

For many in rural communities in the mountains, that meant a lot more than closed parks and late tax documents–it meant standstills at work. And for thousands on the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP—the modern iteration of food stamps), a delay in their food stamps meant difficulty putting food on the table.

The sudden stoppage put additional stress on already-burdened area food pantries and food banks in some chronically underserved areas, and those effects have left a wake that could last months into the future.

The Mountain Area Nutritional Needs Alliance food bank (MANNA)—the primary food bank in Western North Carolina—scrambled their teams ahead of the shutdown to assess the scope of the situation and figure out who would be most affected.

There are seven National Parks in Western North Carolina, and regional headquarters for nine federal agencies in the Asheville area alone, all staffed by federal workers.  According to the National Treasury Employees Union, there are 6,216 federal employees in Congressional District 11, which stretches from Hickory all the way to the Tennessee border.

For the staff at MANNA, there was a big concern that with every missed paycheck, otherwise secure federal employees and their families could find themselves suddenly struggling.

MANNA is a major organization in the region and distributes more than 18 million pounds of food annually. MANNA partners with 220 local agencies in 16 counties throughout the region.

Photo: Courtesy of MANNA Foodbank

“We also did popup markets over at Asheville Regional Airport,” Mary Nesbitt, MANNA’s Chief Development Officer said. “We went out there so that the TSA folks and [other workers not receiving pay] would have easy access to food.”

At the airport alone, MANNA served 152 people over the course of three different free popup markets, where tables were piled high with a wide variety of fresh foods.

But the furloughed government employees weren’t the biggest burden for the food bank and their regional partner pantries. A disruption in the federally-funded SNAP benefit program left many families struggling to keep their cupboards full.

Nearly two months later, food pantries across Appalachia are still scrambling to meet increased demand.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture directed states to send out February SNAP benefits in mid-January ahead of the shutdown. This forced families to budget almost two-month’s worth of limited benefits that generally stop short of covering monthly food budgets.

“Typically, with SNAP benefits, the amount is used up within the first three weeks. So even apart from the shutdown—just in general because the SNAP benefits don’t stretch out through the whole month—more people will be coming to pantries during that last week of the month when we are on a normal cycle.”

During the shutdown, SNAP recipients had to stretch those benefits over 42 days, resulting in increased pressure on food banks to feed local families affected by the lapse in assistance.

Nesbitt and the rest of MANNA found themselves having to warn their 220 partner pantries to prepare sufficient supplies to account  for an increase in need long after the shutdown had ended, through the end of the month.

In 2015, a survey by the USDA found North Carolina to be the 8th most food insecure state in the nation. In the 23 counties that make up the western part of the state, 16.9 percent of the population goes without regular access to food, and more than 155,000 people receive food stamps.

And SNAP doesn’t fully cover this need, even without interruptions in services.

“The amount that a person receives in terms of SNAP benefits is on a sliding scale based on their income,” Nesbitt said. “Even the highest amount that a family would receive, if you compare it to the amount that a family would spend on groceries for the month, they don’t align.”

“People that are working poor, or people that are working at that $8 an hour job, their SNAP benefits, even with that small amount of income, can sometimes be as low as $42 per month because they have other income. Is it helpful? Yes, does it meet your needs for your food budget? No,” Nesbitt said.

Western North Carolina isn’t the only part of Appalachia still reeling from the shutdown. In New York, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier services 6 counties. With more than 73,000 people already at risk of hunger in the region, the food bank services more than 18,800 people every week, but according to the Evening Tribune, the food bank has seen a 45 percent increase in the pounds of food ordered by their partner pantries.

“SNAP is the first line of defense for hunger and it is not surprising that when something disrupts that safety net, people have to utilize the emergency food network,” President and CEO of the food bank Natasha Thompson told the Tribune. “The Food Bank and our partners can address food insecurity in the short term, but this is a reminder of how effective SNAP is in providing consistent financial and hunger relief.”

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, pantries there saw as high as a 166 percent increase in need, citing the delay of food stamps due to the shutdown. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank covers 11 counties with more than 400 partner pantries that service more than 326,000 food-insecure residents. The Post-Gazette reports that just at their Duquesne headquarters, they have seen a jump of 145 families all citing the deferred SNAP benefits as the reason they need additional help.

In the high country of Candler, right on the outskirts of Asheville, still within the limits of Buncombe County, nearly 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Montmorenci United Methodist Church has become a haven for the hungry, hosting weekly dinners every Monday night and a free market on Thursdays, distributing food donated by MANNA.

Montmorenci has seen a 20 percent rise this winter in the number of families serviced each week, from 75-80 families to well over 100 regularly attending their food events.

”What we are seeing across the board is an increase in people, for whatever set of circumstances, needing to turn to our pantries in order to get through the week and the month,” Nesbitt said.

Just last week, Congress voted to block President Trump’s emergency declaration over immigration, which in-part ended the shutdown in February, setting the stage for another potential showdown that could result in months of partisan gridlock. On top of that, the President’s just-released 2020 budget would slash $17.4 billion from SNAP this year, $220 billion over the next 10 years, leaving organizations like MANNA to pick up the slack.

“For every meal that we can provide, SNAP can provide 12 for people in need,” Nesbitt said. “We are big proponents of that resource being made available to people.”

Jonathan Ammons (@jonathanammons) is a writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician based in Asheville, North Carolina.

Food Economy

How A Proposed SNAP Eligibility Revision Could Affect Central Appalachia

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This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week a proposal to tighten the rules on who qualifies for food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

USDA estimates more than three million people across the country would lose SNAP benefits in an effort to prevent fraud.

Anti-hunger advocates in the Ohio Valley say the more than two million people in the region who use the benefits would be impacted.

The department wants to change what they call “broad-based categorical eligibility” in the SNAP program. The regulation allows people that don’t have a low enough income to qualify for food stamps to get them in other ways. For example, people can also qualify if they receive assistance from other federal programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

“Eighty-nine percent of the people that we serve are what we refer to as working, poor families,” said Facing Hunger Food Bank Executive Director Cynthia Kirkhart. “So those are folks that are working one or more jobs to try to make a living. And those families usually have children.”

Kirkhart said her food bank in Huntington, West Virginia serves 116,000 people across 17 counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Most of the people she serves get food stamps through categorical eligibility. She said these families often use the money they save on food because of SNAP to build emergency savings or pay other bills. 

The USDA argues that by tightening SNAP eligibility rules, the department can save billions of dollars by preventing abuses of the program. The department pointed to an example of a wealthy Minnesota man who claims he collected thousands of dollars in food stamps. 

But Kirkhart said without the current rules, she sees some in the Ohio Valley may lose that extra support. 

“The resources they may receive otherwise — pay compensation or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — more of that goes to buy food,” Kirkhart said. “They can’t pay for rent or utilities, or fuel for their cars to get to their jobs.”

If individuals can’t get food stamps through categorical eligibility, then the traditional way to determine food stamp eligibility is through figuring out whether their gross income, along with combined assets like a car, is low enough to qualify. And that can take time to figure out.

“When I was a case worker before broad-based categorical eligibility… I would spend a lot of energy having my applicants go to the bank and prove that they had 42 dollars in the bank,” said Jason Dunn, a policy analyst with the advocacy group Kentucky Voices For Health.

Dunn is a former director of the Kentucky Division of Family Support, an agency that helps manages SNAP eligibility in the state. He said it can take a significant amount of time to determine if gross income is low enough to qualify, and that categorical eligibility speeds up this process.

With the potential of tighter rules, more people wouldn’t automatically qualify for SNAP and have to go through this “asset test”. Dunn said this could create a backlog of cases that could ultimately increase the wait time for people who need SNAP.

“When you add that for hundreds of thousands of cases, it really adds up in time and effort on the state’s part,” Dunn said. 

State agencies in the Ohio Valley don’t yet know exactly how many people could be affected by this proposal. Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia combined have 2,221,188 people signed up for SNAP benefits as of April 2019, according to USDA data. And a report last year by Daily Yonder, an online news outlet that focuses on rural issues, showed rural counties — including in central Appalachia — are more reliant on SNAP. 

“Probably disproportionately [people in Appalachia] would be more impacted than in urban areas because of the concentration of SNAP recipients,” said Ohio Association of Foodbanks Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt. 

Hamler-Fugitt said grocery stores in rural areas that would otherwise be food deserts depend on money from food stamp sales. She said if fewer people are eligible for food stamps, these stores could see less revenue. 

“When SNAP comes under attack and results in people being unable to receive a modest benefit and to be able to stand in grocery store check-out lines, then what happens is that those retailers that rely on not only cash sales but SNAP sales are very vulnerable,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “And many of them, if you know anything about the grocery industry, they operate on very slim margins. What we’re at risk of is losing even more full-service grocery stores.”

Hamler-Fugitt said that could impact people beyond those who use SNAP benefits. 

The proposed rule is open for public comments for two months. 

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Food Economy

Recession’s Impact Lingers for Food-Insecure Rural Seniors

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Courtesy of MANNA Foodbank

“Despite an improving economy and financial markets, millions of seniors in the United States are going without enough food due to economic constraints,” says a new study on hunger among senior citizens.

Betsy, a food bank recipient in rural Kentucky, never expected to need handouts of food.

For nearly 35 years, she had a good job making decent money. But now, at age 51, she suffers from health problems and often has to decide between buying food or medicine. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This story uses the first names of food-pantry recipients to protect their privacy.)

Decisions like those are part of the reason senior citizens in rural America are facing food insecurity, a new study shows. In fact, one in five rural seniors has difficulties getting enough to eat.

According to Dr. James Ziliak, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research and the co-author of the study, nearly 30 percent of senior citizens living below the poverty line are food insecure, or concerned they won’t have anything to eat. About half of those seniors, defined as 60 years and older, have very low food security, meaning they frequently worry about access to food.

Of the top 10 states for food insecurity in seniors, nine of them are in the Southeast.

The study shows that while the economy has recovered since the Great Recession, it hasn’t recovered as quickly for those in rural areas. Lack of jobs, lack of access to food and lack of income are hampering seniors’ ability to rest assured that they will have food when they want it, Ziliak says.

“Despite an improving economy and financial markets, millions of seniors in the United States are going without enough food due to economic constraints,” Ziliak said in the study. “This stubbornly high proportion of food-insecure seniors continues to impose a major health care challenge in the U.S. One group of practical concern is those seniors experiencing VLFS (Very Low Food Security), the ranks of which have especially swelled since 2001.”

Tamara Sandberg

In Kentucky, where Betsy lives, food insecurity rates are also elevated for middle-aged residents. Nearly 20 percent of Kentucky adults in their 50s are food insecure – compared to 11.3 percent nationwide. Kentuckians over the age of 60 have a higher rate of food insecurity regardless of their income – 8.4 percent of them are hungry, compared to 7.7 percent across the country.

“Too many older adults and senior citizens in Kentucky are struggling to put food on the table after decades of hard work,” said Tamara Sandberg, executive director of Feeding Kentucky, a network of food banks that serve all of the state’s 120 counties. “They are faced with agonizing choices such as paying for food or paying for medicine.”

Limited Income, Hard Choices

Betsy has had to make just those choices.

As a child, Betsy began working at age 9, babysitting to save up for the name brand clothes she wanted. As an adult, she worked as a lab technician in Florida. But when her mother got sick, she returned to Morehead, in the coalfields of northeast Kentucky. She continued to work and returned to her Florida job after her mother died.

“I’ve worked all my life,” she said. “There wasn’t a time I wasn’t working up until I had to file for disability.”

After moving back to Florida, Betsy was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Manageable at first, she thought she could continue to work while going through treatment. Then the doctors had to take out a kidney. Later, she was placed on dialysis. The treatments left her unable to work. In response, she moved back to the small town of Morehead, population 6,897, so she could be closer to the support of her family.

Her disability checks and government housing leave her with little money for luxuries. Betsy lives on a little over $900 a month, $100 of which goes to prescriptions. Government housing costs about $143. The rest goes to bills first and food second.

Her son, a 31-year-old living and working in a nearby factory, struggles to make ends meet too, she said.

“He needs to worry about himself,” she said. “He needs to get a new vehicle. The one he has now has issues. He needs to take care of himself first.”

Even though she has an income, she still can face dark times, she said.

“I remember one year a few days before Christmas, I had $2 in my checking account,” she said. “I didn’t know how I was going to pay for any food. I didn’t know where our Christmas dinner was coming from, or what I was going to do about Christmas.”

In that circumstance, a check from her landlord, where she had overpaid her rent for a year, helped to smooth out the difficulties. Most times, she’s not so lucky. Betsy gets food from the food bank once every three months but volunteers there almost daily.

“I don’t eat much,” she said. “So I don’t need to go and get as much food. I figure others probably need it more than me.”

Ziliak’s study found that seniors in rural areas are statistically more likely to be hungry if they are divorced, widowed or separated; if they are sick, disabled or unemployed, and if they are renters.

The study, he said, points not only to the lag in the economic recovery seen in rural America, but also the lack of access to food and resources for seniors in rural areas.

“Our studies have shown that those who are 50 and above were, like the rest of the country, dramatically affected by the Great Recession,” Ziliak said. “But what we’re seeing is that those groups in non-metro areas did not recover like the rest of the population… Non-metro areas have lower incomes generally than metro areas… and it took a long time for the economy to recover for those in the lower income stratus.”

Another cause for food insecurity may be that there just isn’t a way for seniors to get to the food and resources, Ziliak said.

“In non-metro areas, there are fewer outlets that are in reasonable proximity to the full bevy of fruits and vegetables that one needs,” he said.

One Problem away from Hunger

Michael Halligan, CEO of God’s Pantry, a Lexington-based food bank that supplies pantries in Rowan County and other locations, said sometimes one twist of fate can be costly for those in rural areas:

“It’s a different economic reality today than others had to deal with. Put yourself in a situation where you live 30 to 45 minutes away from a grocery store. And imagine being 50 to 59 and losing your job thanks to a downturn in the economy. All of a sudden after 20 or 30 years, you don’t have a job, which means you don’t have a commute so you can’t stop at the store on your way home from work. You don’t have an income, so you have to think about the gas it takes to drive into town. The hardships become very complicated very quickly. … Many people are just one unfortunate or one unexpected incident away from food insecurity. The vast majority of individuals who are food insecure are working to stretch their budget as best as they can.”

For 53-year-old Joe, worrying about food is a daily concern. He, his 22-year-old wife and their 18-month old daughter, as well as a 17-year-old son from a previous marriage, all live together in government housing. All told, they live on less than $1,500 a month, he said.

“For people who don’t understand what it’s like, they should take a box of macaroni and cheese, a pound of hamburger and a pack of hot dogs and use that to feed a family of four for a day,” he said. “It’s a constant struggle. I think about it every day.”

Joe grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and was working in a factory making $27 per hour when the factory closed.

Divorced with three kids, he was ordered by the court to pay $800 in support each month. To make it, he drove with a friend to Indiana to find work. There he met his second wife and moved with her to Morehead to be closer to her family. Within a few years, they had three children. Not long after the birth of their third child, his wife died of breast cancer.

Through it all, Joe worked. He worked as a custodian at nearby Morehead University and at a local school. He worked as a cashier at various places. He worked doing what he could, making what he could.

But finding jobs in a small town presents its own challenges.

“It’s such a small town,” he said. “Unless you have family and friends here to support you, it’s tough to get a job.”

Getting a job is complicated by the fact Joe doesn’t have a driver’s license. In Arizona, he said, the state suspends your license if you fall behind on child support.

Joe owes the state of Arizona more than $165,000 in child and spousal support — an amount that he has owed for more than a decade even though his children are grown and living in Michigan.

“How am I supposed to fight that?” he said. “I’d have to go there and go to court. And every attorney I’ve ever talked to said they need $5,000 just to look at my case… I’ll never drive again. It’s hard to find a job that you can get to around here if you can’t drive.”

Now he and his current wife feed their small family on $234 per month in food stamps. That money is supplemented by food they get at food banks in the area.

“People talk a lot about the last time they went out to eat and what they had,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time we went out to eat. A big treat for us is a four pack of Totino’s pizza. That’s what eating on $234 a month looks like.”

Caring for Others as Well

For some seniors, taking care of their grandchildren means added expenses and gnawing concerns. People over 60 with children living with them are almost twice as likely to have food insecurity, the study found.

Mary, another Christian Outreach Services food bank participant, cares for her 17-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old grandson. For her, summers are hard because they mean breakfasts and lunches for the kids who would normally eat via free and reduced lunch programs at school.

“I know a lot of people in the area who are raising their kids and grandkids,” Mary said. “I pay bills and then I buy food. I’m always trying to save all I can. I try to stretch every dollar. My ex-husband died three years ago of a heart attack and I get his Social Security. And we get money for my grandson and money for my daughter.”

While Mary manages her household on around $1,200 a month, there’s not much left after car payments, insurance, loans and utility payments, she said.

Michael Halligan

Another factor, Halligan said, is the culture surrounding asking for help.

Senior citizens, he said, are less likely to take advantage of assistance because they come from a generation that doesn’t ask for help. In rural areas, that pride can be just as strong if not stronger than in metropolitan areas. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Senior’s Farmers Market Program may some help for seniors, but many don’t know about the programs or are disinclined to use them, he said.

“Senior citizen participation is under-indexed when it comes to the SNAP program,” he said. “I think we need to make those who are vulnerable more aware of the programs and get them signed up.”

For Halligan, the issue of food insecurity is one that policymakers need to be thinking about now.

“I think we need to really think through how we’re going to take care of folks as our society ages,” he said. “It’s great to say people need a larger nest egg to live on, but how do we ensure people are stable? How do we get services to where people live rather than where they aren’t? I think we really need to envision and reimagine solutions to the problems that I see as indicators of increased risk for all seniors.”

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Food Economy

Study Links SNAP Spending to Job Creation

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The Trump administration is proposing big changes in the SNAP (a.k.a. food stamps) program. Some participants would receive foods directly, instead of purchasing them in local groceries. Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Increased food-assistance spending that was part of the 2009 economic stimulus package helped increase employment at the peak of the Great Recession, especially in rural areas, a first-of-its-kind study says.

During the peak and immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, nonmetropolitan counties gained one job for every $10,000 in increased SNAP redemptions, said the study, which was conducted by USDA Economic Research Service.

The economic impact in metropolitan areas was measurable but not as great. Metropolitan counties saw an increase of 0.4 jobs for every $10,000 in additional SNAP redemptions during the height of the recession, according to the study.

Counties in gray lack sufficient data for analysis.
Map: Daily Yonder/USDA ERS data. Source: USDA Economic Research Food Environment Atlas 2012Service  Get the data  Created with Datawrapper. Expand Map to Full Page

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allotted an additional $40 billion in total SNAP benefits for low-income Americans from 2009 to 2013. The increase was enough to give each recipient an extra 13 percent in benefits. Part of the rationale for including increased SNAP benefits in the stimulus package was that the program would help both SNAP families and the greater economy, which would benefit from an infusion of cash-like benefits.

Previous studies have predicted that’s what happens with increased SNAP benefits. The ERS study is the first to confirm that prediction using historical economic data after the fact.

The study is also the first to look at the county-level impact of SNAP expenditures, giving economists a way to compare the economic impact in metropolitan vs. nonmetropolitan areas.

As expected, the economic impact was greater in rural areas, because the poverty rate is higher and a greater percentage of families participate in SNAP in nonmetropolitan counties.

The study controlled for other federal transfer payments, meaning the increase in employment is related to SNAP payments exclusively, not to other forms of government funding that went to individuals during the study period.

As expected, the economic impact of SNAP redemptions was less before and after the Great Recession of 2018.

The study examined three time periods – before the recession (2001-07), the recession and its immediate aftermath (2008-10), and post-recession (2011-14). Both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties saw statistically significant numbers of jobs created during the recession and its aftermath.

SNAP redemptions grew rapidly after passage of the 2009 stimulus package and peaked in 2011-12.

Surprisingly, while pre-recession SNAP reimbursement correlated with job-creation in nonmetro counties, in metro counties before the recession, SNAP had the opposite impact. Metro counties had a 0.2 job reduction for every $10,000 in SNAP redemptions. Researchers said that finding “is not robust” and needs further investigation.

“The main findings … — that SNAP redemptions have a positive and statistically significant impact on county-level employment, that these impacts were larger during the Great Recession than before or after it, and that the impacts were larger in nonmetro than metro counties – are robust across the models estimated,” the study stated.

The study also found that SNAP spending has a “spillover” effect. Increased SNAP reimbursements in one county were linked to job creation in adjoining counties, as well.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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