Thursday, March 4, 2010

Food for America’s Struggling Families

With millions of families all across America stressed by unemployment, underemployment, and low wages, putting food on the table is becoming increasingly more difficult. Catholic Charities USA’s Fourth Quarter 2009 Snapshot Survey showed substantial increases in demand for food. More people, particularly families, are coming to soup kitchens, dining halls, and food pantries for help, and agencies have seen a 66 percent increase in requests for food assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly the food stamp program).

Catholic Charities agencies have long partnered with the USDA to help individuals and families access basic food supplies. Over the past year, Catholic Charities USA has developed an intentional partnership with the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), a division of the USDA, to increase agency participation in the wide array of programs administered by FNS and to secure SNAP outreach funds, which can provide up to 50 percent reimbursement for agency activities related to education and facilitation of enrollment in SNAP. In addition, CCUSA has hosted several webinars to raise awareness of the need for agencies to sponsor or become a site to deliver the Summer Nutrition program which provides a nutritional hot meal to children in need during the summer months.

Local Agencies Use FNS Programs to Alleviate Hunger
Through CCUSA’s partnership with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, Catholic Charities in Chicago recently started a SNAP Outreach Project. Staff and volunteers screen clients for potential public benefits including SNAP assistance. Eligible families receive a debit card with which to make food purchases. Catholic Charities in Chicago is collaborating with the Chicago Public Schools and with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to promote the use of SNAP for families in need.

“We are very grateful to Catholic Charities USA for informing us of this possibility and helping us to make it happen here in Chicago,” said Kathy Donohue, who oversees the SNAP outreach program.

Chicago Catholic Charities also launched its first Summer Nutrition program in 2009, which was funded in part by the Food and Nutrition Service. From June 16 to August 31, the program served 105,000 lunches to low-income children at 60 sites. The sites were located in communities that met the requirements for free and reduced lunches through the FNS and other sources.

The program had an added benefit as well. Catholic Charities in Chicago received a $210,000 grant from the city of Chicago to employ at-risk youth over the summer, thanks to funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Sixty youth were employed to prepare and package the meals for the Summer Nutrition program. Another 65 were placed at the agency’s food centers as well as in other departments within Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities of the East Bay, in Oakland, CA, recently expanded its SNAP outreach program. The agency has hired a third outreach worker, who speaks Vietnamese, to help bring literature to the community and pre-screen applicants. Many people in the community are eligible for SNAP assistance, but are not enrolled.

Vicky Lizarraga, one of CCEB’s SNAP outreach workers, said that’s because many people do not know they are eligible and others are deterred by language barriers, a lack of access to information, and citizenship concerns. She has been handing out information about food stamps at parishes, school PTA meetings and other events, as well as giving workshops to other referring network providers.

Lizarraga has seen a rise in applications from the newly jobless and recently evicted. “Some of them used to work 40 hours, now they’re working 30 or 20,” she said. With food stamps, “they can at least put food on their tables and still . . . pay their rent,” she said.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. FNS administers 15 nutrition assistance programs which form the federal nutrition safety net and work to fight hunger and improve nutrition in the United States. The agency’s fifteen programs include the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called the Food Stamp Program. FNS monitors programs, provides technical assistance, and engages state agencies and partner organizations, like Catholic Charities USA, to increase access to nutrition assistance programs.

The FNS safety net is strong and works well for those who participate in the programs, but adults and children in the United States still face hunger. The latest food security data released by the Economic Research Service of the USDA found that 14.6 percent (17 million households) in the United States were food insecure in 2008 and within those households over one million children simply did not get enough to eat at some point during the year.

Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has made ending childhood hunger in the United States a top priority for the USDA. Partnerships such as Catholic Charities’ partnership with FNS will help the Administration meet this goal by working to expand participation in nutrition assistance programs.

See the resources below to learn more about FNS programs and how your organization can get involved: