by Lindsay Fujimoto, Hunger-Free Pierce County VISTA
“Pay the water bill, pay the energy bill, pay rent, pay for child care, buy food…” This snapshot of the many monthly bills a family may face leaves many, particularly low-income families, wondering how they can stretch their dollar to cover all of their expenses. This is often where federally funded programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) come in. However, many struggling families do not qualify for these assistance programs, and those who do may not receive enough to cover their needs. This is where food pantries come in. For those in poverty, low-income working families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities, food pantries provide relief so families can put food on the table and be able to pay their bills. It is this gap between what is earned and the cost to meet basic needs coupled with the inability of assistance programs to fully bridge that gap that is contributing to a shift from emergent to regular visits to food pantries.
While food pantries continue to assist families in crisis, a large percentage of clients visit regularly with many families factoring monthly visits to food pantries into their budgets. In fact, a Feeding America study showed that “food pantries are being accessed as a consistent, supplemental food source.” More than 50 percent of all food pantry clients “visited a food pantry at least six or more months during the prior year,” many of whom visited the pantry every month. This consistent access is not something that came about in the last year. Instead, it has been a long-term way for families to put food on the table. Feeding America’s study showed that of those who were visiting food pantries once a month, they had been visiting a food pantry on average every month for over two years. Those who use food pantries regularly come from an array of socioeconomic backgrounds, though three groups in particular stand out: low-income and underemployed individuals, seniors, and individuals with disabilities.
First, despite being employed, low-income families fall within the income guidelines to qualify for federal assistance programs like SNAP. While utilizing SNAP helps to put food on the table, a family of four can at most get $649 per month. Many families turn to food pantries as a “supplementary method” of acquiring their basic needs when programs like SNAP are not enough. Other low-income families may fall into the category of ALICE, which is a United Way acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE’s are living from paycheck to paycheck and are still struggling to meet their daily needs. Since ALICE’s fall above the poverty line, they may not be eligible for benefits like SNAP that would reduce their financial strain. Currently, the income guidelines to qualify for SNAP benefits is 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is equivalent to a net $2,021 per month. Even if a family makes just one dollar more than the cutoff, they are ineligible for the program. These ALICE families make up the “millions of low-income, food-insecure families (who) still earn too much to qualify for SNAP” and who depend on food banks to access enough food every month.
Second, despite having worked for most of their lives, many seniors now live on a fixed income with social security benefits becoming a primary source of money. In fact, according to a January 2016 statement by the Social Security Administration, the average senior receives a benefit of just $1,341 per month. Having a fixed income means knowing how much one will receive from their next payment, but for many seniors, this also means knowing how much they will fall short in being able to afford their basic needs. As a result, many seniors depend on monthly visits to food pantries and have become some of the “most consistent pantry clients.” Of the senior food pantry clients, nearly 75 percent visited a food pantry at least six months of the previous year with over half visiting every month. This data shows that food pantries are an integral part in helping to maintain the health of our community’s seniors.
Lastly, disability is another key factor in the issue of food insecurity. According to a USDA Economic Research Service article, “disability has emerged as one of the strongest known factors that affect a household’s food security.” To quantify how strong of a factor disability is, “a study by Mathematica Policy Research found that a person with a persistent work-limiting disability would require more than two and (a) half times the income of an able-bodied person to have the same likelihood of food insecurity.” This means that for an able-bodied individual at the federal poverty level making $990 per month, an individual with a disability must make over $2,475 per month to be at the same risk for food insecurity as the able-bodied individual. One should note that this is not the amount it would take to put someone with a disability out of risk for food insecurity. Instead, it demonstrates the disparity in how much money is required to meet an able-bodied person’s basic needs versus an individual with a disability’s basic needs. This is due to the fact that individuals with disabilities “face higher expenses related to their disabilities,” which not only contributes to the fact that “food security (is) more common among households affected by disabilities, but it also tends to be more severe in these households.” Like low-income seniors on a fixed income, many individuals with disabilities receive a fixed monthly benefit. Similarly, this amount may not be enough to meet the individual’s basic needs each month, particularly when factoring in the extra expenses these individuals face. Food pantries again become a critical support system for those with disabilities and one that is depended upon often.
Research shows that families in poverty, ALICE, seniors, and those with disabilities are particularly at risk for being food insecure. In Pierce County, one in ten people are food insecure, making food pantries especially critical to the success and health of our community. United Way believes that everyone deserves a good life, which is why we have partnered with organizations within our community in working to eliminate hunger. We at United Way along with our partners invite you to join us in fighting hunger. You can make a difference in a number of different ways including donating to United Way and our initiatives such as the Hunger-Free Pierce County Collaborative, advocating for policies that promote food security, and spreading awareness. Together, we can continue to make progress in ending hunger and breaking the cycle of poverty.