Monday, September 29, 2008

Rising Commodity Costs Threaten Reliability of Emergency Food

Agencies receiving commodity foods from the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) are getting less food despite their calculated entitlements, recent reports show.

The $189 million federal program allots commodity foods like dried beans, pasta and canned fruit to emergency food networks. The dollar amount of many agencies’ entitlements has remained the same while TEFAP costs have risen nearly 19% in the past year, with staples like medium-grain rice increasing by as much as 70% over the past two years. “With very few exceptions, the increases are staggering,” says Melinda Annis, senior vice president of food programs at California Emergency Foodlink.

The USDA has also cancelled many TEFAP bonus food purchases, which previously made millions of dollars of commodity foods free to agencies beyond their calculated entitlement. Recent bonus food cuts include canned fruit and fruit juices.

The cuts mean barer shelves for food pantries, who have found it much harder to provide customers with a balanced supply of food. The recent shortages further illustrate how “difficult it is for food banks across the nation to plan an even and consistent flow of food to serve a growing population of hungry people” said Annis.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Imminent Closure of City Senior Centers Puts More at Risk for Hunger

Dozens of the 100 senior centers operated in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings will close following extensive funding deficits. NYCHA senior centers offer meals and services to low-income seniors suffering from food insecurity and lack of access to grocery stores.

The closings follow a 2003 memorandum of understanding between NYCHA and the Department for the Aging which would have allocated $30 million in federal funds for senior center operations. The memorandum was not carried out and the city Department for the Aging (DFTA) continued to administer the senior centers until the absence of federal funds and chronic under-funding by the Bloomberg administration resulted in a $195 million overall NYCHA budget deficit.

Lack of funding may also affect other NYCHA-sponsored services including child care and community centers. Prompted by the funding crisis, NYCHA has laid off a number of employees and is considering selling its development rights to private companies, as suggested by Manhattan borough President Scott Stringer.

One in every three NYCHA residents is over the age of 62. For more information about low-income seniors and food access, see the Council of Senior Centers and Services’ report: Hunger Hurts: A Study of Hunger Among the Elderly of New York City.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New City Nutrition Standards A Step Towards Healthy Food Access

On September 19th, Mayor Bloomberg announced an executive order which made New York City the first major city in the country to establish healthy standards for all food served at City agencies.

The City serves 225 million meals each year at City schools, public hospitals, senior centers and correctional facilities. The nutrition standards, developed by the City Food Policy Task Force, will require city agencies to comply with calorie and fat guidelines and take other steps towards providing healthier food, including: providing two servings of vegetables in lunches and dinners, phasing out deep frying, and lowering the salt content in all meals and snacks. If supported by further efforts to increase access to meals through initiatives like universal, in-classroom student breakfasts, the new standards may help to ensure that all City residents – especially children – have sustained access to enough healthy food.

The measure highlights the need for aggressive city policies to counteract hunger and poor nutrition among residents and to increase families’ access to healthy food beyond City meals by eliminating barriers to food stamp enrollment, bringing healthier options into neighborhood food stores and bodegas, and continuing to expand acceptance of food stamp benefits at farmers markets.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Protecting Food Access in Times of Crisis

With hurricanes Ike and Gustav wracking eastern and Gulf states and damaging tornadoes hitting the Midwest, federal Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) are working with state and local governments to ensure that those hit hard by disaster still have access to the food they need.

FNS is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and provides the services that already-overburdened emergency food programs are unable to deliver in times of crisis. Relying on the federal food stamps program as a first line defense, FNS operates the Disaster Food Stamp Program, which expedites food stamp benefits to households that are made newly-eligible for benefits in the wake of disaster. FNS recently authorized the Disaster Food Stamp Program in counties across Louisiana and Texas with further temporary stipulations that allowed recipients to purchase hot food with their benefits and reimbursed existing food stamp recipients for food lost in power outages. Despite the essential work of FNS, the Disaster Food Program has suffered from administrative errors and has been subject to recent criticism in Louisiana, where an error temporarily doubled recipient benefits and left many waiting for benefits despite their eligibility.

In conjunction with emergency food stamp outreach, USDA also authorizes FNS to orchestrate mass commodity food shipments to food banks in disaster areas.

In the past several years, FNS has outlined strategic plans for response in the event of weather-related and medical disasters in areas across the country. For more information about FNS and the Disaster food stamp program, visit the USDA website.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thrifty Food Plan Not So Thrifty Anymore

In “Coming up short: High food costs outstrip food stamp benefits,” the Children's Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program (C-SNAP) at Boston Medical Center found that the maximum food stamp benefit does not buy the items included in the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) in any size food store in Boston and Philadelphia.

The situation in Boston and Philadelphia reflects a nation-wide phenomenon in which Food Stamps benefits no longer cover the cost of basic foods. The USDA uses the “Thrifty Food Plan”as an example of the types and quantities of foods that people could purchase to obtain a nutritious diet at a minimal cost. The USDA uses the cost of this mix of foods to determine the maximum food stamp allotment. The USDA reported that, from July 2007-July 2008, the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan increased 10% while the Consumer Price Index of food overall increased by only 7.1 percent.

The C-SNAP’s report found that families in Boston would have to spend an additional $2250 per year to purchase the TFP. Access was another obstacle to these families obtaining nutritious food: researchers were unable to find 27% of the items that make up the TFP – predominantly the healthier options like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and low-fat milk and cheese – in the neighborhoods surveyed in the report.

Congress is currently debating a second economic stimulus package that could provide effective, nationwide relief for low-income families. We need to take action now to make sure our elected officials know that anti-hunger and anti-poverty legislation needs to be a priority in the final days of the 110th Congress. Ask to meet with your U.S. House Representative or U.S. Senator (Clinton or Schumer) to urge them to increase funding for nutrition programs in the “Second Stimulus Supplemental Appropriations Bill.” Please contact Alexandra Yannias at (212) 825-0028, ext. 212 for more information about the Bill or about how to effectively lobby your representatives.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Despite Improvements, Healthier Commodities Still Absent in School Meals

For school food programs, healthier options are still a hard sell.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Child Nutrition Commodity Program offers 180 items to school food programs, which account for 20% of the food served in school meals. Though the Commodity Program has increased its offering of more nutritious food in recent years, a recent study released by the California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) suggests that state schools are bypassing healthy choices in favor if high-fat, heavily processed options.

The Food Research Action Center (FRAC) has followed similar trends in schools across the nation and is calling for policy changes to improve the quality of school meals. Recommendations include harmonizing school meal standards with national Dietary Guidelines; increasing the amount of fresh produce made available by the government to school lunch programs; and holding food processors to higher standards for processing commodity food items.

“Federal nutrition programs can play an important role in the nutritional quality of children’s diets and in reducing childhood obesity,” said FRAC President James Weill, who further urged “school districts to band together to maximize their buying power for healthier foods.”

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

“Past Time” to End Child Hunger

Seventy years after the Great Depression, children in the United States still suffer from food insecurity and hunger, despite the fact that the United States has more than enough resources to end child hunger once and for all.

Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund recently called attention to the critical need for government to intervene on behalf of food insecure families and children. Government programs that have proven effective in combating hunger and poverty remain woefully under-funded, with partisan gridlock standing in the way of action. The Food Stamps, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and School Meals Programs feed millions of children, but cannot currently fill the gap between stagnated wages and rising food costs. “It is past time to correct and strengthen national nutritional programs if we are to prevent families in need from being abandoned,” said Edelman, who called for greater access to nutrition programs and further emphasis on long-term food security.

NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg and policy developer Tom Freedman recently highlighted specific policy measures that the current and future administration should take to end child hunger by 2012.

Please visit NYCCAH's website for letters and other advocacy materials to help feed the solution and to end child hunger!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Food Security Funding on Hold Due to Farm Bill Red Tape

An error in legislative language has prevented the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) from distributing nearly $5 million in Community Food Projects (CFP) grants to low-income communities this year.

The USDA awards competitive grants up to $300,000 to projects that improve community self-reliance in relation to food distribution and production. Imprecise wording in a section of the Farm Bill inhibits the dispersing of CFP funds in 2008: an error which food security experts are calling inadvertent, but unfortunate. “Through our advocacy on the Farm Bill, we are certain that it was the intent of Congress to ensure that there was not an interruption in funding for Community Food Projects,” said Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition. “Unfortunately the legislative language was not clear in this regard.”

Past CFP funded projects include community garden projects run by at-risk youth; a community kitchen network supporting micro-enterprise ventures for low-income community members; and supermarket development programs which aim to bring food access back to underserved communities.

Nearly a hundred Community Food Projects are in limbo as members of Congress attempt to repair the gaffe with a technical amendment to the errant section.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Long Island City CSA Members at the Farm

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an innovative program that builds a relationship between local farmers who grow produce and individuals who want access to locally grown fresh produce. For city dwellers, it offers an opportunity to gain access to freshly grown food and to support the local economy.

On Friday, August 22, members of the Long Island City CSA were given a chance to see the fields, streams and soil that sustain the fruits and vegetables in their weekly produce delivery. Chris Cashen and Katie Smith, the owners of the 200-acre Farm at Millers Crossing, hosted the trip so that members could see first-hand where their food grows. Cashen emphasized the mutual benefit of CSAs and thanked members for their participation in the program. “Because members pay up front and are open to a wide array of seasonal produce, we are able to offer them a very affordable way to buy and eat organic produce,” said Cashen. The owners of the thirteen-year-old family farm in Hudson, NY, which has operated CSAs since its beginning, celebrated its inaugural season with the Long Island City CSA by inviting members to better understand how food goes from field to CSA box.

Visitors learned about hay production, helped bag onions for sale at a nearby farmers market, and spent much of the afternoon wading in the creek and picking apples from the farms trees while eyeing the farms cattle herd from afar. The trip included representatives of NYCCAH and Just Food, who sponsor the 50-member CSA, as well as a group of young CSA members from Hour Children, many of whom were visiting a farm for the first time.