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The Weekly Food Research and Action Center News Digest highlights what's new on hunger, nutrition and poverty issues at FRAC, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around the network of national, state and local anti-poverty and anti-hunger organizations, and in the media. The Digest will alert you to trends, reports, news items and resources and, when available, link you directly to them.


 

Issue #25, August 5, 2014

  1. Community Eligibility Provision Helps Children Learn and Schools Administer Meal Programs
  2. Mississippi School District Expects Increased Meal Participation Through Community Eligibility Provision
  3. Bipartisan Legislation Would Help Remove Barriers to Summer Meal Participation
  4. Lawmakers Investigate Living on Minimum Wage Salary for One Week
  5. Nutrition Assistance Recipients Struggle with Incidences of Public Shame
  6. In Oregon, Transportation is Major Barrier to SFSP Participation
  7. Nearly Half of Obese Youth Not Aware of Their Weight
  8. Students More Accepting of Healthier School Meals
  9. Subprime Auto Lenders Charging Struggling Low-Income Americans High Interest Rates
  10. Pilot Program will Help Identify Needy Residents through Unpaid Water Bills

1. Community Eligibility Provision Helps Children Learn and Schools Administer Meal Programs
(Marketplace, July 22, 2014)

Through the Community Eligibility Provision, school districts with at least 40 percent of children eligible for free school lunch [because of their participation in certain other programs] can offer free school meals to all children while saving on paperwork. Participating districts will no longer have to spend time and money processing school meal applications. “Our funds are going to producing the meal instead of all the paperwork,” said Dora Rivas, executive director of the Food and Child Nutrition Program for Dallas Independent School District. Educators say that the provision will also lower stress levels for children and help them focus on academics. “Sometimes they worry about not having enough money to pay for their meal,” said Rivas. “I think this is going to be a great benefit to them.” According to Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, about 21.5 million children receive free or reduced-price school lunch on an average school day. “Most of the kids in the free and reduced-price meals program are kids whose parents are working…full time at very low wages, or working part time,” he said.


2. Mississippi School District Expects Increased Meal Participation Through Community Eligibility Provision
(Hattiesburg American, July 28, 2014)

Hattiesburg Public School District in Mississippi will begin implementing the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) on August 6 when all students in the district will be able to receive free school breakfast and school lunch. Stephanie Hoze, the district’s director of child nutrition, expects CEP to help increase breakfast participation from 69 percent of students to 71 percent, and lunch participation to rise from 85 percent to 91 percent. Most importantly, said Hoze, the district’s children will receive the nutrition they need in order to learn. “The Hattiesburg Public School District has made a commitment to ensure that hungry students are getting enough nutritious food each day,” she said. According to Scott Clements, director of the state’s Office of Child Nutrition and Healthy Schools, 28 school districts in the state have applied for CEP. The provision “gets rid of a big administrative burden (for the district),” said Clements. “For the families themselves, they no longer have to apply, because all students in the district will be eating without any charge.” He also noted that the stigma of free school meals is also removed when all students are able to receive free school meals.


3. Bipartisan Legislation Would Help Remove Barriers to Summer Meal Participation
(Recordonline.com, July 22, 2014)

Bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) would lower the threshold for sites to serve free summer meals to children, from 50 percent or more of the students eligible for subsidized school lunch to 40 percent of students eligible. The legislation also provides help with transportation, streamlines paperwork, and adds a third meal to the day. Keeping track of how many families are eligible for free school lunch during the school year “underestimates the real need because some do not get around to filling out the forms and some avoid the program because of the stigma,” notes this editorial. “[D]espite…growing need, the programs designed to address it have lots of gaps,” which the bipartisan summer meal legislation seeks to address. However, there remain members of Congress who advocate for fighting fraud and abuse in the SNAP Program, although the fraud rate is close to one percent and the abuse rate is close to two percent, and both are dropping, “and repeated reductions hurt the 97-percent-plus who were neither fraudulent nor abusive.”


4. Lawmakers Investigate Living on Minimum Wage Salary for One Week
(ABC News, July 21, 2014)

Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) took the “Living Wage Challenge” July 24-30, living for a week on $77, as would a minimum wage worker. The start of the Challenge marked the fifth anniversary of the last time Congress increased the minimum wage. The politicians covered their experiences on social media in order to focus attention on the struggles of minimum wage workers across the country. Rep. Ryan supports a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour, which would help hard working Americans join the middle class, he said in a call with reporters. Earlier this year, Schakowsky said she listened to low-wage workers describe their challenges. “Paying for housing, food, transportation and other necessities stretches them and their families very thin,” she said. “These workers need and deserve a raise.” Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would lift nearly one million Americans out of poverty, she said. The 13 states that increased their minimum wage earlier in 2014 saw an average job growth increase of 0.85 percent between January and June, notes the Associated Press, while the other 37 states saw an average job growth of 0.61 percent.


5. Nutrition Assistance Recipients Struggle with Incidences of Public Shame
(Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 24, 2014)

When Meg Johnston of Marietta, Georgia was shopping at the grocery store, she pulled out her WIC coupons to pay for the items that the program covered. She also had ice cream and soda for her family. She planned to pay cash for these items that weren’t covered by WIC. A woman saw her oversized vouchers printed with “Georgia WIC Program” and said to Johnston “[y]ou know, if you’re on government assistance you really shouldn’t be buying ice cream and soda.”  Johnston was shocked. “I didn’t know what to say. I held it together long enough to pay and get to my car, but I was bawling by the time I got in,” she said. These incidents are impossible to quantify and study, but letters to news outlets, social media posts, and caseworker and aid conversations reveal the unsolicited and guilt-producing remarks those on assistance often have to contend with when grocery shopping. Clients tell Extriara Gates, benefits screener for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, that they hear criticisms from customers behind them in grocery store lines when they use their EBT cards or WIC vouchers. “I guess the assumption is that poor people should only eat certain things,” said Gates. SNAP recipient Cynthia Nerger had to endure a debate between three store employees and a store manager at a Kroger supermarket over what items were covered when she was checking out. The manager said to Nerger “[e]xcuse me for working for a living and not relying on food stamps like you.” Kroger apologized to Nerger. The move to EBT cards for SNAP, made to improve program administration and reduce fraud, has also helped reduce some of the stigma attached to the program, since they look like debit cards.  “Historically, there have always been these efforts to ‘guide’ the poor,” said Michael Leo Owens, associate professor of political science at Emory University. “‘Why give your child a sugary drink when you can give them milk?’ But there’s nothing patriotic about this kind of talk or morally upstanding about it. It’s about belittling people.”


6. In Oregon, Transportation is Major Barrier to SFSP Participation
(Public News Service, July 17, 2014)

The latest report on summer meal participation shows that about two out of every five children in Oregon who receive free school lunch also participate in the Summer Food Service Program. There are nearly 750 sites across the state serving free summer meals, but it’s tougher to reach children during the summer. “I know here, we’re a little bit more rural, so kids are more scattered than they usually would be during the school year,” said Dan Rudy, nutrition services supervisor for Crook County Schools. “I’m hoping that maybe next year, we can actually get a truck or a bus, or something that can go around to more sites, rather than just having the kids come to us.” Coos Bay School District has reported success with its mobile summer meal service. Budget cuts provide another barrier to participation. School budgets were trimmed during the recession and summer school programs were cut, said Signe Anderson, senior child nutrition policy analyst for the Food Research and Action Center. “Oftentimes, the meal programs are set up with summer school programming that goes on during the summertime,” said Anderson. “So, ideally, if there’s funding available for summer school or just summer programming in general, that would go a long way.”


7. Nearly Half of Obese Youth Not Aware of Their Weight
(The Washington Post, July 23, 2014)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics released a report stating that 42 percent of obese children and adolescents (ages 8-15) in the U.S. consider themselves to be around the right weight. Nearly 48 percent of obese boys, and about 36 percent of obese girls, aren’t aware they are obese, although U.S. obesity levels seem to be leveling off. In addition, nearly half of U.S. children – those who are overweight, underweight, or “just-the-right weight,” don’t view their weight correctly. The CDC report states that accurate weight perception in children leads to appropriate youth weight control behaviors. “Children who don’t have a correct perception of their weight don’t take steps to lose weight,” said Neda Sarafrazi, one of the CDC report authors.  “But given the exceptionally high rate of obesity among American adults[,] the lack of self-perception found in the country’s obese children should be particularly alarming,” notes this blog post. According to FRAC, nearly one-third of American children are overweight, and about 35 percent of them become obese in adulthood.


8. Students More Accepting of Healthier School Meals
(Education Week, July 21, 2014)

A survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan of 557 elementary school administrators found that 64 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “few students complain now” about the new healthier school meals mandated by the federal government starting in the 2012-13 school year; 56 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that students complained when the healthier meals were first introduced. The same amount of lunch is consumed under the new regulations, noted 59 percent of respondents, and the same number of students purchase school lunch now, according to 65 percent of respondents. “Respondents at elementary schools with more students from lower-income families reported increases in student purchasing, compared with decreases reported from higher-SES schools,” according to an issue brief by Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which funded the study. The brief also noted that in schools with 40 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, less plate waste was reported, compared to schools with fewer low-income students. “Policymakers at all levels should be encouraged by these findings and should continue to support schools’ efforts to provide students with healthy meals and snacks,” said Tina Kauh, a program officer for RWJF. A March study by Harvard University researchers found that plate waste levels are no higher than before the new standards were adopted, and students are now eating more fruit and vegetables.


9. Subprime Auto Lenders Charging Struggling Low-Income Americans High Interest Rates
(The New York Times, July 19, 2014)

In the five years since the end of the financial crisis, the number of subprime auto loans – loans to people with credit scores at or below 640 – has increased more than 130 percent. According to a New York Times investigation of more than 100 bankruptcy court cases, the interest rates for these loans can be more than 23 percent, and the loans themselves were often twice the value of the cars purchased. The loans are popular for lenders, who can benefit financially in much the same way as subprime mortgage lenders received profits of those loans. However, for Americans still struggling after the recession, subprime auto loans can push them deeper into debt, according to interviews with legal aid lawyers, state prosecutors, and officials from the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And should the borrower miss a payment, lenders can quickly repossess the car, some with new technologies that remotely lock a car’s ignition within minutes. “The car gets more money than what we put in our fridge,” said Jonathan Mojica, who is barely keeping up payments on a $19,313.45 Wells Fargo auto loan. He and his wife are currently living in a homeless shelter in the Bronx.


10. Pilot Program will Help Identify Needy Residents through Unpaid Water Bills
(Governing.com, July 29, 2014)

The National League of Cities (NLC) has started a two-year pilot project with five cities* which will identify residents struggling financially through unpaid utility payments, and provide them with help. The project, called LIFT-UP, also aims to improve utility payment rates. About a third of utility customers in the five pilot cities have late payments, according to Denise Belser, a program manager at NLC. Savannah, Georgia’s project began last August; through the project, residents who have had their water cut off at least once in the past two years, and now owe between $150 and $500, can make a smaller (25 percent rather than 50 percent) down payment to keep their water on, extend the time frame for bill repayment to four months, and receive $50 credited to their next water bill upon completion of the program. The project requires these utility customers to take one-on-one financial counseling, and a nonprofit provider will help them identify assistance programs they may be eligible for, such as SNAP, energy bill subsidies, Medicaid and child care assistance. Low wages in restaurant and hotel jobs, along with high unemployment and underemployment, seem to be the causes of utility debts in Savannah, according to Robyn Wainner, who oversees the pilot for the nonprofit Step-Up Savannah.
*Houston, TX; Louisville, KY; Newark, NJ; Savannah, GA; St. Petersburg, FL.


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