Wednesday, July 29, 2009

1 in 6 low-income children missing out on free summer meals

How is it that food stamp numbers continue to rise, yet only one in six low-income children participates in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) to receive free meals throughout the summer?

According to a recent FRAC report, it is harder to reach our children in the summer months, and Congressional measures over the years have resulted in reducing the number of communities eligible to participate, eliminating start-up and expansion funding, and lowering reimbursement rates. These critical cuts decreased both the number of sponsors and Summer Food sites.

In 2008, only 10 states reached at least one quarter of their low-income children through the SFSP. And although PA has the 13th highest participation in the program in 2008, we still only served 24.8 children through Summer Food out of every 100 children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) during the school year.

“Not only are states with low Summer Nutrition participation rates failing to provide for their low-income children, they are missing out on the millions of dollars in federal funds that exist to provide healthy foods for these children.” (page 2) Pennsylvania could receive over $4.9 million if they serve 40 children in Summer Food to every 100 children enrolled in the NSLP.

Advocates must reach out to communities with low participation rates, and Congress must pass child nutrition reauthorization bills to make the SFSP more effective and restore the cuts previously made —now, when the need and numbers are at an all time high, we must get all children fed in the summer.

To read the full report, click Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation.

To view a map of Summer Food sites throughout Allegheny County, click here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pennsylvania increases SNAP guidelines

Starting July 27th, 2009, the gross income guidelines for the SNAP program (formerly the Food Stamp Program) increase to 160% of the federal poverty level. If you've applied for food stamps recently and have been denied because you were just over the income limit, you may be eligible now.

(as of July 27, 2009)

_Household Size______Monthly gross income limit
_______________________(before taxes)________
______2______________________ $1,867 ___________
______3______________________ $2,347 ___________ ______4______________________ $2,827___________
______5______________________ $3,307___________

* These guidelines DO NOT APPLY to households with members who are disabled or over 60 years old

Call Just Harvest at 412 . 431 . 8963 to apply over the phone from 10am - 6pm Monday - Friday.

Local advocates join to urge state legislators to vote against slashing our programs in the State Budget

A group of seven Just Harvest staff and interns joined PCRG, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, Neighborhood Legal Services and The Housing Alliance on July 16th on a trip to Harrisburg and spoke out to our state legislators to oppose the proposed state budget cuts presented in SB 850 and HB 1416. So far, we haven’t seen a budget proposal we’re happy with—one that includes workable plans of raising revenue over slashing funds to our most important human service programs including: childcare, legal aid, libraries, the Department of Public Welfare and economic development.

Along with protesting these proposed cuts with our legislators and their aides, the group provided ideas for raising revenue, primarily endorsing the option of a temporary increase in the PIT (personal income tax). Although receptive in our dialogue, many legislators hesitated on acting on such a controversial issue—the demon of raising taxes. Reelection and party affiliation should be set aside in this matter; we elect our representatives to make these hard decisions, not to abandon leadership at a time when we need them the most.

Please join us in this fight—tell your elected officials you’re willing to pay (.68 cents a day) for the PIT increase. Otherwise, without a statewide PIT increase, we will be looking at increased local and property taxes in our near future.

TAKE ACTION: Call your state officials today and tell them we can’t balance the budget on cuts alone; we can’t balance the budget on the backs of poor people. To find your state legislators, visit: and type in your zip code.

For more information on how these cuts will affect us, check out the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center's "30 Ways in 30 Days Service Cuts will hurt Pennsylvania" and browse the PBPC website for more interesting articles. For in depth analyses, visit the Keystone Research Center.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Social safety net fails to support full-time minimum wage workers

Imagine working 40 hours a week every week and bringing home less than $1,000 a month. Then imagine trying to live off of that for all of your utilities, rent, food, gas, car payment, etc. You would assume anyone working full-time wouldn’t find themselves in this situation, but that’s the lot for low-income workers.

I discovered this when interviewing a young man for his food stamp application. I asked him how many hours a week he works and how much he makes an hour. Then I get out the calculator and do the math. 40 hours a week x $7.25 an hour x 4 weeks a month = $1,160 a month. Subtract taxes, and he was right: his take home pay for full-time work was less than a grand a month.

This is where the safety net system comes along and fails to support low-income workers, because the income guidelines for food stamps don’t account for taxes for the first income test: the gross income test. For a single person feeding themselves, their gross income has to be less than $1,126/month. Our full-time worker living on less than a thou a month grosses $1,160. No food stamps for this fellow.

Which, well, is not fair. For starters, had taxes been taken into account, he would have been eligible. And eligible for quite a bit due to his rent and utility costs. An extra $95 a month to pay for food would have really been a hand up in his situation.

Secondly, had he received $1,000 in any other source of income every month instead of working for it and paying taxes, he would have been eligible for assistance. But since taxes aren’t subtracted when considering eligibility, the system is letting this young man still go hungry.

So, for any of you contacting legislators next time the Farm Bill is up: tell them to change the rules so that the gross income guidelines are gross income minus taxes.

-Ann Sanders, Food Stamp Specialist

Monday, July 6, 2009

SNAP clients MUST receive EBT cards in a timely manner

When considering the complexity of the application process for SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamp benefits), it is not surprising that there are numerous places along the road where the process can veer off course, delaying a client's ability to use their benefits to buy food.

It is all the more frustrating when that process veers off course after a client is under the impression that they have already crossed the finish line. Just Harvest recently encountered several situations in which a client was able to successfully navigate the treacherous obstacles of accurately filling out an application--gathering the mountain of supporting documents for verification of their situation and sending it off to a County Assistance Office, completing an interview with a caseworker and being approved for benefits--with nothing to show for it. The final, crucial step that allows a person to finally use their benefits, receiving an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, never happened.

How can it be, that after what can at times, be a month long process of phone calls, left messages, faxes, mailings, and more phone calls, a client can be approved and not receive a card? Where does the car veer off the road? When a new client is approved for benefits, they have the option of having their EBT card mailed to them. For clients who are working full-time, caring for young ones, or are otherwise unable to make it into the County Assistance Office, this would seem to be a convenient option.

When a new client is approved for SNAP benefits, a notice is automatically sent from Harrisburg, informing them of their status and the amount of benefits to be expected. If they cannot pick up the EBT card at the office, it is sent from JP Morgan, who has a contract with the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to create the cards and manage the EBT system. Once a card is issued, it should arrive in 3-7 days. However, unlike the notice of eligibility from Harrisburg, the card is not automatically issued. It requires an additional step from a caseworker to issue the card. If that step never happens, a client does not receive a card, and is unable to use his or her benefits.

This situation raises several questions. Why isn’t the card automatically issued, like the eligibility notice? How often do caseworkers forget to issue a card? What is the average amount of time it takes a client to receive a card after they have been approved? For a process that can already take 30 days just to determine eligibility, having to wait an additional few days or weeks, could be extremely difficult for someone who needs food right away.

Just Harvest recently encountered a case in which a client was approved, but never received a notice or EBT card. After receiving a Just Harvest newsletter months after applying for benefits, he called to say he had never heard anything. When our advocate inquired about the case, the gentleman had been receiving benefits for over five months and had no idea. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, yet it illustrates another barrier to receiving food stamp benefits, which have the potential to discourage even the most persistent applicant. DPW needs to ensure that all applicants who are determined eligible receive an EBT card in a consistent and timely manner, so that clients are never forced to hunt down a card that they have already invested so much time and energy into obtaining.

-Brian Gilmore, AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer