WASHINGTON – Millions of children don’t get the food they need, according to the Food Research and Action Center, and the number of hungry children in Maryland, one of the wealthiest states, has significantly increased.
The center, a nonprofit organization that works to improve policies that help eliminate hunger and malnutrition, gathered a panel of hunger and economic experts at the National Press Club Wednesday and released a report that looks at states’ food and nutrition programs.
The panel called on Congress to use an economic stimulus bill to increase food stamp allotments by 10 to 20 percent and to pass it in the next few weeks.
“Families just can’t purchase adequate food through the amounts of food stamp benefits the government provides,” the center’s president, James Weill, said.
Food stamp participation in Maryland has increased 45 percent from 262,907 participants in August 2003 to 382,063 in August 2008 — the eighth-largest gain in the country, according to the report.
“The economic downturn that we have seen across the country has developed a need for families to reach out to other resources to help them feed their families and to save income or add to the income that they have available, and the food stamp program is one of the ways they have been doing that,” Maryland Department of Human Resources spokesperson Elyn Jones said.
Despite the increase in participation, only 41 percent of the state’s eligible working poor used food stamps, according to fiscal year 2005 statistics from the report. That number is low because many people do not know they are eligible, Jones said.
The agency has been reaching out to people to inform them of their eligibility, including the elderly and people on the temporary cash assistance rolls and who wanted to cut their ties with any type of state program.
Low participation can also be attributed to the inaccessibility of the programs, said economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute.
In Maryland, applicants have to complete a face-to-face interview to be approved for food stamps, said Kimberley Chin, the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. The state may institute phone interviews so people will not have to take time off work or find transportation.
Chin said she and Kevin McGuire, the head of Maryland’s food stamp program, and some of his staff took the food stamp challenge, which required them to feed their families for one week only using food stamps, which allots $1 per person for each meal. Thus, they could only spend $21 per person that week to provide three meals each day.
“The stress of just having to cook and think about a nutritious meal on this budget while you’re working full time, it’s amazing,” Chin said. “It’s really difficult to live on what food stamps provide for you. That was a big eye awakening for a lot of people.”
Instead of eating less, food stamps limits cause people to eat poorly, which leads to obesity, said Cynthia Lamy of the Partnership for America’s Economic Success, a research organization managed by The Pew Charitable Trusts that looks at how investments in children can benefit the economy.
Cheap foods tend to be highly processed, full of sugar, lacking vitamins and less nutritious, Lamy said.
“And so what people will do when they’re low income and when they’re stressed for food … they start out by stretching the dollar and getting the cheaper foods,” she said.
This can also cause mental health issues in children, Lamy said.
“Kids are depressed; kids get hyperactive; they have a lot more trouble sort of controlling their impulses,” she said. “Of course, they have a lot of trouble concentrating.”
Increasing food stamp allotments would be expensive. The federal government spent more than $30 billion on food stamp programs in fiscal year 2007, more than $350 million of which went to Maryland, according to the FRAC report.
But it’s not about money, Weill said. It’s about political will.
“We can afford this as a nation,” he said. “The nation certainly faces a dawning economic situation, but at the same time, it remains a place of almost unimaginable abundance by the standards of the rest of the world and even by the standards of this society 20, 30, 50 years ago.”