Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Letter to the Editor

Just Harvest Co-Director, Joni Rabinowitz submitted this letter to the editor which appeared on Friday, December 18, 2009 in the editorial section of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Strengthen 'safety net'

More than 561,000 Pennsylvanians are unemployed and more than 400,000 children live below the poverty line. The recession affects everybody.

And our current policies to address poverty don't keep up with our changing economy. On this much, we agree with Glen Meakem. But Meakem is wrong to propose eliminating the "safety net" in his column "The dependent class" (Dec. 6 and Actually, spending on "safety net" programs is insufficient to deal with the unprecedented economic crisis. In Pennsylvania, for example, the number of people receiving cash assistance is near a 40-year low -- only 85,000 families, down from 170,000 in 1997.

Pennsylvania spends $164 million less per year on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash grants than it did in 1997. Grant amounts haven't increased in 20 years and pay only $403 per month for a family of three! Meakem says the nation "spent $714 billion on various means-tested welfare programs" in 2008. But more than half of that was for health programs like Medicaid.

We invite Meakem to join the fight for health care reform for all Americans, to increase coverage that will lead to cheaper preventive care and reduce wasteful spending. The rest of Meakem's deceptive accounting includes Pell Grants for college students, LIHEAP to help pay for heat, job training and Head Start.

"Safety net" programs should be modernized and expanded, not eliminated.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WIC and Farmers' Markets: A New Opportunity

On October 1, 2009 the Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Program (WIC) extensively expanded their food package to include many more healthy options for mothers and children. The new package emphasizes healthy choices like whole grains, low-sugar juices, and for the first time, the addition of fruit and vegetables. WIC participants can purchase fruit and vegetables using the new “cash value voucher,” or CVV. These CVVs will be distributed in amounts of $6.00 for children, $8.00 for mothers and $10.00 for breastfeeding mothers. Another lesser known new addition to the WIC package is each state’s ability to authorize farmers’ markets to accept the new CVVs. This change in the states’ legal authority has exciting potential. The ability to use WIC at farmers’ markets could boost both WIC recipients’ nutritional health and provide more business to local farmers and agriculture.

Much confusion surrounds this new addition, because a program that allows WIC recipients to shop at farmers’ markets already exists: the Farmers’ Markets Nutrition Program, or FMNP. WIC recipients (and also seniors, through local Area Agencies on Aging) can receive checks to use at farmers’ markets at their WIC agency. But the numbers of FMNP usage are disappointing. In the fiscal year 2008, 8.7 million Americans received WIC benefits, but only 2.3 million WIC recipients received FMNP benefits (USDA, 2009). Actual redemption rates are even lower. Federal allocation rates also illustrate the importance of WIC in the farmers’ markets: an estimated $500 million is allocated for WIC, twenty-five times more than FMNP. If only 4% of all fruits and vegetables purchased with the CVVs were purchased at farmers’ markets, it would still match the entirety of the FMNP utilization from WIC participation (Community Food Security Coalition, 2009).

The benefits of adopting the CVVs in farmers’ markets seem obvious, and many states including New Jersey, New York, and California have implemented pilot CVV programs in farmers’ markets. However, Pennsylvania is currently not planning on implementing any pilot programs. According to a 2009 report by the Community Food Security Coalition, the reasons for Pennsylvania’s hesitation lie in structural and funding issues. But many states had similar issues, including California, who shares a unique check-cashing method with Pennsylvania. This issue will continue to be relevant, especially with the continually-rising numbers of people who depend on WIC and other food programs to feed their families. Pennsylvania leaders should be open to discussions about this wonderful opportunity for both Pennsylvania mothers and local farmers.

Anne Wachtel is a social work intern at Just Harvest.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Busting Food Stamp Myths

It's not surprising that during an economic downturn, more people turn out to recieve food stamps. The USDA just released its estimates about food stamp participation rates, based on 2007 data. According to this report, an estimated 1.4 million Pennsylvanians are eligible for food stamps, of which about 76% are currently enrolled in the program. The New York Times and The Post-Gazette ran the same article referring to a USDA report on food stamp usage and the diminishing stigma associated with using applying for food assistance. Despite the growing need and usage, this article demonstrates the pervasive myths about food stamps that even those who have applied for and receive benefits believe. This post is aimed at three of myths mentioned in this article:

1. People avoid marraige to get food assistance.

It doesn't matter if you are married or not to your significant other - or your roommate. If you share food, you are expected to apply together and report both incomes. That's the law, people!

2. Food Stamps discourage work and hurt the economy.

Before each food stamp application, we do a quick screening just to make sure people are most likely eligible before we start the application. I've definitely had this conversation several times with individuals who are barely over income and wonder, "Would it pay off for me to make less and become eligible for food stamps?" Would you drop your gross pay by $60 to get $37 in food stamps? No. How about take of $200 in pay to get $77 in food stamps? Honestly, the situations where it might pay off are when people are literally just over the guideline and have high shelter costs.

If you are a student, unless you meet certain exceptions, you have to work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible, no matter how hungry and broke you are.

Furthermore, food stamps don't hurt the economy! Actually, for every dollar dolled out in benefits, a multiplier effect occurs.

3. Food stamps are basically cash assistance, but with fewer restrictions.

Food Stamps can only be used to purchase food - unless you are doing something illegal. And there are restrictions on it: in Pennsylania some food stamp applicants are asked to participate in work-readiness programs. It has only been since the fall of 2008 that non-disabled adults without children can receive food stamps for longer than 90 days.

A lot of people applying for food stamps for the first time, especially seniors, are often shocked and sometimes insulted by how low the income guidelines are, how low their benefit amount can be, or how much paperwork is asked for. This is after all, a system that is supposed to be there to help people, right? This is a safety net for people at vulnerable times in their lives who are stepping out and saying: "I need help meeting my basic needs and the needs of my family, I can't do it on my own." The last thing anyone in need should have to deal with is accusations or opinions about their moral standing in society.

Being poor is not a crime! A lot of this conservative rhetoric encourages people to feed their families cheap, malnutritious food instead of applying for assistance, which results in all sorts of health-related and social ills.

Ann Sanders assists people in the application process for food stamps in Just Harvest's Food Stamp's Make a Difference Program.