The Challenge Of Feeding America’s Hungry

MS. DIANE REHM

10:06:56
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. It's estimated that 50 million people in America struggle to get enough food. Of these, many rely on the government for help at an annual cost to taxpayers that now exceed $70 billion. Privately funded food banks around the country also reported dramatic upswing in demand.

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:21
Joining me to talk about hunger in America today and what we can do about it: Eric Olsen of Feeding America, Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Deborah Flateman of the Maryland Food Bank and Stephen Moore, a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning all. Thanks for being with us.

MS. STACY DEAN

10:07:59
Good morning.

MR. ERIC OLSEN

10:08:00
Good morning.

MR. STEPHEN MOORE

10:08:00
Good morning

MS. DEBORAH FLATEMAN

10:08:00
Good morning.

REHM

10:08:01
Eric Olsen, I'll start with you. Tell us about the trends in hunger in America. Are the numbers going up?

OLSEN

10:08:11
Well, first of all, Diane, thanks for having a show on such an important topic. Hunger is a chronic problem that exists in every county in this country. As you noted in the introduction to the show, the latest USDA statistics show that there are 50 million people who are food insecure or one in six households across the country, and this includes almost 17 million children.

OLSEN

10:08:32
And it's a problem that affects the entire country, not just urban areas but also rural areas have high levels of food insecurity. So it's a major problem that our country needs to address, both through the role of government in providing assistance to people as well as the charitable system. We need both in order to effectively combat hunger.

REHM

10:08:52
Stacy Dean, give us a sense of how many more people are relying on this so-called SNAP Program, which has sort of replaced in name the Food Stamp Program. How many more people are relying on this program than, say, four years ago?

DEAN

10:09:17
So today, we have 47 million Americans on the program, and compared to the beginning of the recession, December 2007, at that time, there were 27.5 million people on the program. So the program has seen very significant growth, but it's exactly what you would expect to see and what we would want to see when you have the kind of massive market failure that we had during the recession where work essentially disappears for very vulnerable families.

REHM

10:09:47
How does the program actually work? Who qualifies for assistance, and how much do they get, Stacy?

DEAN

10:09:57
So it is a federal program that operates generally uniformly across all of the 50 states. It's the states that administer it. And if you have income below 130 percent of the poverty line which, for a family of three, is about $2,000 a month. So if you have income below that, you are eligible to qualify. It is a -- and that's regardless of whether you're a senior, a person with disability, family with children, have earnings. The program doesn't discriminate based on the type of family that you are.

DEAN

10:10:35
It's meant to help all families achieve a basic diet. You -- it's -- you typically have to go to a local welfare office or you can apply online in some states that are offering that service. You need to provide a lot of information about your incumbent circumstances. The program really thoroughly scrutinizes families' eligibility because we target a very precise amount of families based on, you know, their ability to purchase food.

DEAN

10:11:01
And there needs to be an interview where -- so families -- I don't want to discourage anyone from going through the process because, of course, the program is there to help them, but I also want to reassure listeners that the program operates with a high degree of integrity because it really assesses family circumstances.

REHM

10:11:17
This morning on local "Morning Edition," we heard a piece about individual volunteers seeking people to be on food stamps. Tell me about that. How does that happen? How do we go out and find people who want to be on food stamps or the SNAP Program who have not themselves applied for it?

DEAN

10:11:49
Well, despite the program's growth, we still have eligible people who don't participate in the program. And it's typically not because they don't know about the program, but they think they aren't eligible, they're intimidated by the process, or they may feel some sense of stigma. Particularly seniors worry that participating is the wrong thing to do or it might take food away from others. And we have this incredible army of volunteers, particularly at our nation's food banks and other community groups.

DEAN

10:12:18
In Boston, there are -- the Boston Medical Center, when families that are struggling with health issues show up and the doctors find out they're not participating in SNAP where the benefit would help, of course, basic nutrition and health in that family, they take steps to help families fill out the applications. It can be very old school where we have paper applications and fill it out with pen and ink, or it can be using online tools to connect families. It's an incredible service to provide our nation's needy.

REHM

10:12:50
And, Deborah Flateman, tell me how the food banks are growing. You're involved with the Maryland Food Bank. How does that operate, who comes to it and why aren't they on food stamps?

FLATEMAN

10:13:06
Well, let me just say thanks for having me here, Diane. You know, food banks are very unique in their operation. End-users don't come to the food banks to access food. Food banks exist so as to serve all of those agencies that in turn serve the people who are in need. So for instance in Maryland, in my service area, we've got 600 agencies that we supply with food that we amass from all different sources.

FLATEMAN

10:13:35
Regarding the food stamp issue, it's great that Stacy brought up the fact that food banks are involved in SNAP outreach. We, in fact, started a SNAP outreach program just a couple of years ago, and we focused solely on seniors. And the reason we did this is because the participation rate in Maryland was so low in the program, and we knew that there were -- you know, our goal is to get as many meals into the community as possible.

FLATEMAN

10:14:00
And this is one way we don't have to touch a pound of food. We just have to help people sign up for the benefit. And so we focused on seniors, and, exactly what Stacy said, they think that someone else should be getting the food. They don't feel that they're entitled. They -- they're embarrassed. And they're really afraid to begin to attack the daunting task of filling out that application.

FLATEMAN

10:14:22
So we literally -- it's like casework. We work with people one on one. We help them to fill out the application. We steward it through the process. We recertify them in six months when they're eligible. And we're getting, you know, that population on food stamps. And it, quite frankly, makes us feel really great.

REHM

10:14:43
And, Stephen Moore, you call what's happening something of a national travesty. What do you mean?

MOORE

10:14:53
Well, you know, Diane, I mean, obviously, we all want to provide food to people who are hungry but, you know, when you have 47 million people in this country on food stamps, there's something terribly wrong with our country. That's one out of seven families can't put food on their table without government assistance. I mean, that is a big problem. And I do have a problem with this idea that there shouldn't be a stigma attached to being on the dole. I mean, what's happened to our country?

MOORE

10:15:18
And, you know, in decades past, there always was a -- people would go on the dole as an absolute last resort. They wouldn't take government benefits. I talk about, you know, all the time to my parents' generation during the Depression. I mean, people would go on public assistance as an absolute last resort. And, unfortunately, I think there's a view of -- in this administration, Diane, that food stamps is a good thing.

MOORE

10:15:41
You know, in fact, the administration actually says that food stamps is a stimulus to the economy, which in my opinion, is a kind of crazy idea. But there's this idea now -- I mean, the administration is actually outwardly recruiting people to go on food stamps. They have outreach programs across the country to get people to sign up for food stamps. And I think that's a problem.

MOORE

10:16:01
One last thing, you know, when I was talking to your producer about this segment, you know, she was saying, quite correctly, a lot of students now, college students are on food stamps. My goodness, if they had this kind of eligibility standards 30 years ago when I was in college -- I was living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

MOORE

10:16:17
I didn't have much of an income -- I would be on food stamps today. So I think it's become way too generous, and I think one thing we ought to do, Diane, absolutely, is there should be a very strict work requirement for anyone who receives any of these benefits.

REHM

10:16:32
All right. I want to get to that question of a work requirement. But first, I want to go back to -- can you tell me, Stephen, looking back, when this food stamp boom actually began?

MOORE

10:16:50
Well, there's no question it began, you know, with the onset of this terrible recession that we had, no question about it. And you heard some of the numbers about how we've gone, I think, from about 25, 26 million to 47 million in four, five years. No question you're going to have a big increase in these programs when you have an economy that tanks and when you've got 8, 9, 10 percent unemployment.

MOORE

10:17:12
But in this case, we've seen food stamps rise, I think, at a much faster pace than we have in past recessions even given how steep it is, I think, because this is an administration that has really actively tried to put people on food stamps.

REHM

10:17:26
But didn't it really go back to 2002 with the farm bill, the benefits in the farm bill?

MOORE

10:17:36
You know, I'm not entirely familiar with all the legal changes with the program, Diane. But I will say this, that, you know, we've seen -- if you look at a chart of what's happened since 2000 and today, it's been an almost -- complete upward ascent in the -- and by the way, not just the number of people collecting the benefits, but now this is about a $70 billion-a-year program.

MOORE

10:17:59
And I think one of the mistakes we made back in 1994 when we passed bipartisan welfare reform is we had the work requirements for welfare, which was a very, very successful provision. It moved a lot of people off welfare and to work. We didn't provide a work requirement for food stamps.

REHM

10:18:13
OK. So we're going to talk about two things, whether the program is too generous and whether there should be a work requirement. First, we're going to take a break. We'll take your calls after we come back. Join us, 800-433-8850.

REHM

10:20:05
And welcome back. Four people are with me in the studio: Eric Olsen with a group called Feeding America, Stacy Dean is at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Deborah Flateman is with the Maryland Food Bank, and Stephen Moore is a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board. During our last segment, you heard Stephen say that he believes the program has become too generous and that there should be a work requirement. Before we get to those two issues, I'd like to understand, Eric, the relationship between the food banks and the SNAP program.

OLSEN

10:20:58
Well, as Deborah was talking about, more and more of our food banks are doing SNAP outreaches away to reach their clients. We have about 41 percent or probably higher of the people who come to the food banks are actually SNAP participants because what happens is the benefits don't last them the entire month. They typically run out by week three. And so that's when our food banks in the pantries will see people coming in for assistance.

REHM

10:21:21
What do they get in the SNAP program? Can you outline that for me?

OLSEN

10:21:26
Well, the average benefit is $133 per case load, and it works out to be about $1.50 per meal. So you're not...

REHM

10:21:33
For a family of...

OLSEN

10:21:34
For a meal.

REHM

10:21:36
No, no. But I'm asking for a family of four. Do we have that figure, Stacy Dean?

DEAN

10:21:42
The average monthly benefit for a family of four is about $495.

REHM

10:21:47
OK.

DEAN

10:21:48
So -- but I think Eric's right that the per person per meal average is $1.50. That's very difficult to describe as generous. I would call it basic to meager.

REHM

10:21:57
OK. And are there any restrictions or requirements as to how that money or how those food stamps, how the program is used?

DEAN

10:22:09
The benefits can only be used for food in authorized food stores. There are about 230,000 grocery stores, farmers markets that accept food stamps.

REHM

10:22:19
And are there any restrictions on the types of foods people can buy?

DEAN

10:22:25
No. Food stamp participants are able to purchase any type of food as a -- just as a normal consumer can. Can we get back to the issue of program growth for a second...

REHM

10:22:36
Sure.

DEAN

10:22:37
...and the notion that that -- that the recent growth speaks to some sort of over generosity in the program? You know, some policymakers have used recent growth -- raised concerns about growth as a means to justify cuts to food benefits. And I just think claims about growth are flatly wrong, and I want to go through them again. One is the program, as I think Steve agrees, grew fundamentally as a result of the recession. We have lost millions of jobs. We have over 12 million people out of work.

DEAN

10:23:11
And that is what the program is first and foremost responding to. There are two other things that I think we should touch base on briefly that cost some of the growth. One is Congress plussed-up benefits modestly in 2009 as a part of the Recovery Act because the program was understood by economists to provide economic stimulus after unemployment insurance. It is viewed as one of the most highly effective means to stimulate the economy.

DEAN

10:23:36
A dollar in SNAP generates a $1.74 cents in economic activity according to Moody's Analytics. And also, we're reaching a higher share of eligible people. When more eligible people enroll, that -- of course, those enrolled go up. But what's really important -- we've only talked about half the story, which is the rise in the program. The -- as the economy improves, it's just as SNAP grows when the economy weakens.

DEAN

10:24:08
It will shrink when the economy comes back. So CBO and other forecasters expect the program to return to its historic levels, its pre-recession levels by 2020 when we see lower unemployment and lower poverty. It grows and it shrinks with the economy.

REHM

10:24:27
What about that, Steve, that we're simply in a period where more people need more help, that by 2020 when we assume the economy is going to be stronger, these numbers will back down?

MOORE

10:24:46
Well, you'll get no argument from me. This is a lousy economy. I have been thinking for five years. Nothing we've done has helped this economy much at all. And it, you know, we do have, by my estimate, about 20 million people unemployed in this country. So we have economically dysfunctional polices right now that have put a lot of people in real distress. There is no question about it. But, you know, I just -- as an economist, the notion that food stamps is a stimulus to the economy is such a backward concept.

MOORE

10:25:12
I mean, my goodness. If that were true, Stacy, we should have 100 million people on food stamps. Then give everybody free food and we'd have a booming economy. So obviously, any kind of welfare program that pays people benefits like this cannot possibly be a benefit to the economy. There's no -- there is no, you know, requirement for this. And as I said, I mean, what about people who really are working two or three jobs, who are, you know, taking the extra efforts so they don't have to go out in these programs?

MOORE

10:25:41
I mean, I think there is an issue of fairness here. One last point, if I may, another personal anecdote. You know, I was at the grocery store this weekend -- and I'm not making this up, Diane -- this gentleman in front of me was purchasing, you know, I saw his groceries and he was paying with food stamps, and he got crab legs. You know, and I thought, oh, my God. And he got in an argument with the attendant.

MOORE

10:26:02
And by the way, I bet there are a lot of people listening to the show who've had similar experiences. Some of the things people are buying with food stamps now is unbelievable. It's not just basic food products. And he got into an argument with a grocery store clerk saying, you can't buy these with food stamps. And they got into a big argument.

MOORE

10:26:18
So I believe -- and there's a lot of evidence to support this -- there is an amazing amount of fraud going on. There's a secondary market where people sell their food stamps so they can buy alcohol, they can buy cigarettes and things like that. So there has to be a much better kind of monitoring of the system.

REHM

10:26:34
Eric.

OLSEN

10:26:36
Boy, there's a lot to tackle there. The food stamp program error-and-fraud rate is lower than just about every other major program. It's 3.8 percent. And a lot of the errors are actually in underpayments. I'd like to kind of get this issue of choice -- client choice that you talk about. Obviously, we want clients -- food stamp participants and the clients that come to our food banks to eat healthy meals for their families.

OLSEN

10:27:00
We think that they are the ones to make the right choices for their families and that the government shouldn't restrict it and that if a person's buying crab legs, that's wholesome food that they can eat. And hopefully they're doing that in balanced way for their family. I don't understand why you would attack...

MOORE

10:27:14
Well, should -- you think they should buy lobster? Wow. Wow.

OLSEN

10:27:16
I think they should be able to make the choices that are right for their family like everybody else does.

MOORE

10:27:19
I don't think a lot of American taxpayers want to pay for a lobster dinner for people.

REHM

10:27:23
What about that, Deborah?

FLATEMAN

10:27:25
Well, you know, I'm a big proponent for client choice. So we've actually tried to convert all of the pantries in our network into what we call a client choice model. You know, the old days of packing up a box of food that the person who's running the food shelf thinks the end user should get, that's gone. We really think that the dignity of Americans who need this kind of support and go into local shelves, they should be able to access what they want.

FLATEMAN

10:27:51
I just want to jump back on the one comment that Steve made about, two to -- people having two to three jobs and -- so that they don't have to go on food stamps. Let me tell you that we -- I experienced in our -- in the audience, the population that we're serving, yes, there are a lot of people going to local food shelves who are holding down two and three jobs. They're still not earning enough money to put money -- food on their table. But they're not eligible for any federal programs. So they...

REHM

10:28:22
Why not?

FLATEMAN

10:28:23
Because they make too much money, so...

REHM

10:28:25
So help me to get my head around that.

FLATEMAN

10:28:29
OK. So imagine. I think about -- even $40,000 a year, a family of four on $40,000 a year. Let's think about it. When was the last time any of us earned $40,000 a year and tried to support a family? That's well above the threshold for access to any federal program. So that particular food-insecure family is solely the responsibility of the charitable food distribution system of which the Maryland Food Bank is part.

REHM

10:28:58
So that person earning -- perhaps both members in the family earning $40,000 a year, have no access to a federal program, they would end up coming to a food bank?

FLATEMAN

10:29:15
That is absolutely correct. And what we -- for the 466,000 people in our service area that our network serves, 44 percent of the people that we're serving, food-insecure people are not eligible for any government programs to help.

REHM

10:29:32
Eric.

OLSEN

10:29:33
We have a study on our website. It's called the Map the Meal Gap, if you go to feedingamerica.org, where you can look at food insecurity rates in, literally, in every county in the country. And we map that out by income band, and so you can see the extent of food insecurity for people who are above 185 percent of the poverty line and don't qualify for anything. And fully one-third of the 50 million Americans who are food insecure make too much to qualify for any benefit whatsoever. So it's a problem.

OLSEN

10:30:02
The scale of the problem is so big that you have to have government. But at the same time, because the government cutoff is at a low-income level -- these are all very low-income people -- you have to have a very strong charitable system to help the people who are making too much money. So you really need to have both.

OLSEN

10:30:18
And if I can just make one other point about SNAP, so 76 percent of the SNAP households have either a child, a disabled or a senior citizen in them, and they get 84 percent of the total benefit dollars that we're talking about. So are there problems that you need to address like fraud and trafficking? Yeah, you need to be aggressive about that because it's a big program, and it's a serious issue if that's happening.

REHM

10:30:39
And on that very point, here's an email from Lynne, who says, "This all sounds nice, but I'm very concerned as a taxpayer about fraud. Where do the statistics come from regarding 50 million being hungry?" Stacy.

DEAN

10:31:00
Those are Census Bureau figures. They're collected as a part of annual surveys of American households, and they've been tracked for a number of years now. And, unfortunately, we do know that there are that many individuals in America living in households that are struggling against hunger. I think, again, I think we all agree the economy has been in a terrible place. It is recovering very slowly, and there are millions and millions of Americans out of work or earning too little to get by.

REHM

10:31:30
So what percentage of the people that you're helping, Deborah, do not qualify for public assistance?

FLATEMAN

10:31:41
Forty-four percent.

REHM

10:31:43
Forty-four percent.

FLATEMAN

10:31:43
Correct.

REHM

10:31:44
What about you, Eric?

OLSEN

10:31:46
Well, we're the national organization of all the food banks, so it's going to vary by service area.

REHM

10:31:50
It's about?

OLSEN

10:31:51
It's a -- a third of the 50 million food insecure don't qualify for any benefits.

REHM

10:31:56
And do you do the same kind of investigation before you hand out food?

OLSEN

10:32:06
I would have Deborah ask how she handles clients.

FLATEMAN

10:32:09
Well, again, we serve the agencies who serve the individuals. Every agency, you know, have member agreements with them. We have certain ways that we want them to conduct their business, handle the food, et cetera. For instance, they cannot ask for any kind of quid pro quo from an end user, for instance. We're a faith-based organization. We'll give you food if you come to a church service first. That wouldn't be allowed, et cetera, et cetera. So there are details in that member contract, but, ultimately, the intake procedure is developed by the local agency.

REHM

10:32:42
But you're not asking them how much money that family earns before you hand out food.

FLATEMAN

10:32:51
We look for evidence that is provided by the local agency, but determined by them what they consider adequate evidence to assure that the people they're serving are low income.

REHM

10:33:03
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's get to Stephen's point about a work requirement. Stephen, if there were jobs, wouldn't you think that people would be out there working?

MOORE

10:33:20
I mean, people -- look, there is a shortage of jobs, no question about it, 20 million people unemployed. But, you know, people can find jobs if they, you know, if they really look for it and if they're -- if they are, you know, willing to take jobs maybe at a lower salary than they're used to.

MOORE

10:33:35
I mean, one of the problems I have is that when you're providing people with a benefit and you're not requiring anything in return -- this is actually one of the difference because -- but if you look at the history of private charity -- and by the way, I think most of the -- I would get rid of the food stamps program and let this be done with private charitable efforts.

MOORE

10:33:52
And one big difference between private charities and government is we've developed this notion, in this country, of entitlement, that people are entitled to these programs. And at least with private programs, oftentimes we require something in return for the people who are getting the benefits. So -- yeah.

REHM

10:34:07
But at the same time, haven't the churches and charitable organizations themselves been hit?

MOORE

10:34:16
Sure. I mean -- yeah.

REHM

10:34:16
Donations being down, so they can't provide the kind of help.

MOORE

10:34:21
Well, it would be a different world if we didn't have all these programs. I think you'd see a flourishing of private efforts to help people. Look, the American people are the most compassionate and charitable in the world. We're not going to let people in this country go hungry. I don't believe that to be the case. I mean, look, if you look at some of these statistics when you talk about 50 million people being hungry, it's also true that the biggest nutritional problem for low-income people in America is obesity. It's obesity.

MOORE

10:34:45
It's not that they -- that they're too thin. One other point is the big increase in population that's getting food stamps right now -- and this pains me -- is immigrants, newly arriving immigrants. Now, we've had a requirement in this country for 100 years. And I'm as pro-immigrant as anyone. I think immigrants are great, great, great for this country. They're the best hardest working people in the world.

MOORE

10:35:05
We've always had a requirement that when immigrants come to this country, they not become a public charge. That was true of the Germans and the Irish that came 100 years ago. What are we doing now? Literally, once they get their green card, we're signing them up for food stamps. That's a very different mentality than in the past.

REHM

10:35:22
Stacy.

DEAN

10:35:23
So, Diane, I think we just -- we need to go back and surface some facts here. We've had a lot of opinion, not a lot of facts. First is that the 1996 welfare law made recently arrived immigrants totally and completely ineligible for the program for their first five years in the country. Refugees, that's not true, and some other immigrants who are admitted under a humanitarian basis.

DEAN

10:35:45
But immigrants, legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants have never been eligible for the program. But legal immigrants are not eligible during the first five years they're in the country, and thereafter there are some other restrictions. And on the work front, again, I think we just need to go back to what are the rules in the program before we get to thoughts and opinions about how to change it.

DEAN

10:36:06
First, the 1996 welfare law did impose a severe and strict work requirement in the food stamp program. Childless unemployed adults may not participate for more than three months out of every three years unless they are working at least 20 hours a week. States have some flexibility to relax that rule when unemployment is very high, as it is now, and they have done that. But as unemployment goes down and we see the economy recover, I expect one to 2 million people will be forced off of the program because of that what I call time limit, others call work requirement.

MOORE

10:36:42
Stacy, you mentioned facts. There's one -- you got one thing wrong factually. It's true that in 1996 we passed the welfare reform bill, and there were very strict requirements on that and even work requirements. The first thing that President Obama did when he was elected, when we passed the stimulus bill, is he eviscerated the work requirements for food stamps, and that's one of the reasons we have 47 million people on the program today.

DEAN

10:37:04
I'll get back to that inaccuracy in a second. Let me just continue. The second is that the...

MOORE

10:37:07
It's true. I mean...

REHM

10:37:08
Hold on. Let her finish.

DEAN

10:37:08
...the number of working households on the program has risen dramatically in the last few years. First, it's important to remember about 60 percent of households, as Eric point -- or 60 percent of individuals aren't folks you'd want to work, but you've seen a huge rise in working families. That's because of programs doing better and because we have a rising wages at the low end of the scale.

REHM

10:37:27
Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Short break here. When we come back, we'll take your calls and hear your voices. Stay with us.

REHM

10:40:05
And as you can imagine, we have many emails and phone calls. We'll try to get to as many of you as we can. Let's go first to Norman, Okla. Good morning, Walter.

WALTER

10:40:21
Good morning, Diane.

REHM

10:40:22
Hi.

WALTER

10:40:22
It's, like, a complete pleasure to be on your show. I've been listening to you for years.

REHM

10:40:26
Thank you.

WALTER

10:40:28
I just wanted to address something that one of your panelists was talking about with food stamps. Years ago, I was on food stamps, which is now the SNAP program. And you do actually have to have a job, according to Oklahoma. I know it depends on whether or not you have family members and kids and everything. But I had to submit my information from my bank to show how much money I actually had in my bank. And I also had to submit paycheck to show how much I made, bills and just basically every sort of financial information that I could divulge to them in order to get on it.

REHM

10:41:11
Now, that was the requirement for food stamps then, but is it a requirement for a food bank?

FLATEMAN

10:41:22
Well, the only way that we're involved in SNAP -- and the SNAP program is through our senior program, getting seniors eligible -- the eligible seniors signed up onto the program. So, yes, everything that the state of Maryland requires in the administration of the program, we make sure that we gather adequate evidence that the person is in compliance.

REHM

10:41:44
But there are still food programs where this kind of information is not necessary, Eric.

OLSEN

10:41:52
Are you asking how many people that are participating -- that come to food banks that have jobs, is that what your question is?

REHM

10:41:58
Well, how much investigation is done into legitimate need?

OLSEN

10:42:07
Well, we, you know, I think that if you have ever gone to a food bank or an agency and you see people coming into line, it's a very hard thing for people to admit that they need help. And so we try to treat them with utmost dignity and respect to not get into, you know, asking them a bunch of questions about why they need help, that if they've taken that step to come to a food bank, it's -- that their family is in a serious condition and that they need assistance, and we try and provide it.

REHM

10:42:31
All right. And here's a question for you, Stephen, from Leslie in Dallas, Texas, who says, "Many severely disabled people rely on food stamp benefits. They're not able to work.

MOORE

10:42:48
Right. Right.

REHM

10:42:49
"Please have your guest address this challenge."

MOORE

10:42:51
I'm glad this person wrote in 'cause I should've said every able-bodied person. So obviously, if someone is disabled or they're elderly and they can't work, you know, you're not going to have a work requirement for them but for people who can work. And by the way, this may mean -- you asked me about not having enough jobs, that may mean we have to have government make work programs, but everybody should be contributing, the society, if they're going to get a benefit, in my opinion.

REHM

10:43:14
Right. To Peoria, Ill. Good morning, Brad.

BRAD

10:43:19
Yeah. Hi. I just want to -- 'cause the sentiments of one of the guys on your panel. Two inherent problems: One, too much food without food value is available on that program 'cause I work at a gas station where they come in and buy junk food in droves on their Link card. Two, where I live, there's a street value of 50 cents on the dollar that people purchase these from these Link card recipients knowingly. Everybody knows about it.

REHM

10:43:42
Now, this follows an email we've received from Beth, who said, "Could you please help us understand why the USDA lets convenience stores, dollar stores and pharmacies accept SNAP benefits? I understand we want to increase access to food, but the food offered at these stores is unhealthy." Stacy.

DEAN

10:44:14
Well, USDA's following the rules that Congress set that a store, regardless of what it's brought or make up, is if it offers certain variety of foods and meets other requirements, it can participate. Actually, Congress have -- has, this year through the Farm Bill process, taken a look at whether those result would be tightened up and whether we ought to look at the broader make up of stores. So that's being debated now.

REHM

10:44:39
Go ahead.

FLATEMAN

10:44:40
I just want to say that the keyword on that is access. You know, most of the areas where a lot of the poverty population exist, their only access to food is at the local corner store and, you know, the 7-Elevens -- I hate to use product or company names, but that's what they can access. And so it's probably the only food, on a regular basis, that they can actually get their hands on which isn't necessarily the best for them.

REHM

10:45:08
All right, to Charlottesville, Va. Good morning, Abraham.

ABRAHAM

10:45:14
Thanks for taking my call, Diane.

REHM

10:45:15
Sure.

ABRAHAM

10:45:17
I just wanted to share a story about how several years ago I was disabled suddenly with a severe case of lupus, and it was because of government programs, chief among them is SNAP benefits I received, that I was able to recover to focus on my health and wellness and not have to worry about putting food on my table. Thanks for my call. Thank for taking my call.

REHM

10:45:40
Well, I'm glad to hear you're feeling better and also happy to know that the food program helped. Here's an email from Steve, who says, "I love your program most of the time.

REHM

10:45:58
"And -- but I am so tired of being manipulated by media telling me there is hunger and that every state is growing more obese as we speak. Why can't these prevent hunger groups start talking with the prevent obesity now groups and just put everyone in some sort of support circle?" Eric.

OLSEN

10:46:28
I think that's a great comment. I'd like to say that hunger and obesity are flipsides of the same coin and that we actually -- the public health community and the anti-hunger community for too long have been at odds. And I would say, in the last couple of years, we've been developing more and more relationships and figuring out ways to work together to improve access to healthy food and health. So you're addressing both food and security and obesity by working together. I think that's -- that comment is spot on, and it's the direction that we're going across the network.

REHM

10:46:57
Deborah.

FLATEMAN

10:46:58
On the ground, I can tell you that from our perspective, one of the ways that we've been really making a difference in this regard is, for instance, five years ago, we were removing about 200,000 pounds of fresh produce through the food bank. This past fiscal year ending on June 30, we actually moved 4.5 million pounds of fresh produce. We do fresh produce drops, et cetera.

FLATEMAN

10:47:20
On top of that, we're part of coalition, say, in the city of Baltimore, some really creative ways to address food deserts and access to healthy food, getting local farmers' markets to accept those EBT cards so that people on food stamps can go to a farmers' market and get fresh produce. Discovering how you can deal with, perhaps, zoning issues where there would be incentives for those corner stores to offer better food.

FLATEMAN

10:47:49
In the city of Baltimore, we've got a virtual supermarket thing going on where people can go to their local library, they can go a kiosk, use their EBT cards and cash to order groceries that will be delivered at the library for them. So now they're having access to a grocery store that has really, you know, the full array of everything that they need to provide a healthy meal to their families.

REHM

10:48:15
Here's...

FLATEMAN

10:48:15
So there's a lot going.

REHM

10:48:16
Here's another email from Erin in North Carolina, who says she volunteers at a local food bank, "Many of our clients are seniors who average $700 a month in Social Security payments. I cannot imagine asking them to partake in a work program. Many have worked most of their lives and are now in their 70s and up. Many clients come in saying they waited until there was nothing left to eat. They will be very emotional about it. I don't understand why we should punish them further by taking away SNAP especially when there are children involved." How do you feel?

MOORE

10:49:06
Well, again, if you're talking about people who are senior citizens or you're talking about people who are in a wheelchair or in some other way disabled, then certainly not. But I think most Americans want to help people in need. There is no question about that, and we don't want people to go hungry. But also, people want something returned for the benefits. And there are a lot of people who are not disabled. The vast majority of people who are getting food stamps today, Diane, are not disabled, and most of them are not working.

MOORE

10:49:33
And one of the problems, by the way, with the program when, you know, we're talking about these income cut offs, it actually -- the program actually discourages work because it says if you make an income over a certain amount, if you work more hours and you make more income, you'll lose the benefits for these programs. And that's a big problem for people in -- with incomes between, say, 25- and $40,000 a year.

REHM

10:49:51
What about that, Stacy?

DEAN

10:49:53
Well, I actually, not surprisingly, don't agree. I think the...

DEAN

10:49:58
...the program has a very strong work incentive. First of all, the -- when the households go to work or earn more, some of their earnings are disregarded. So when a household goes -- earns more, their SNAP benefits aren't decreased dollar for dollar, and so there is an incentive to work. And there is no evidence to suggest that food stamps depresses labor force participation.

DEAN

10:50:22
In fact, our work shows that -- again, of those families with children, because we want to exclude seniors, people with disabilities and kids themselves who are the overwhelming majority of the program, three times as many of those households have work as opposed to cash welfare. That's been on the rise. Even during the recession it was going up.

DEAN

10:50:44
And if you look at labor force participation before the program -- 'cause obviously, many turned to it when they lose a job -- and after, it's overwhelming. About 80 percent are engaged in the labor market. And two -- your two callers are perfect examples of folks who have temporary downturns in their life because of an illness or because they loss a job, they used this program, and then they are back in the labor force.

MOORE

10:51:09
Well, Stacy, is there -- and this is just a factual question.

DEAN

10:51:11
Mm hmm.

MOORE

10:51:11
Is there a time limit? Is there -- I mean, with traditional welfare, when I did the welfare reform, you know, in 1994 and '95 working with Newt Gingrich, we put an 18-month, two-year time limit that this was a temporary -- what is -- what kind of time limits are there on food stamps?

DEAN

10:51:28
Well, first I think the federal time limit on cash assistance is five years, although some states shortened it. But for -- as I mentioned earlier on the call for childless unemployed adults, we have three-month time limit out of every three years. And there is some folks...

MOORE

10:51:43
Wait, what does that mean, three month out of three years?

DEAN

10:51:45
That childless unemployed adults may not participate in the program for more than three months out of every three years unless they are working at least 20 hours a month. Now, they could also be enrolled in a work program, although there's no requirement for states to offer it, and states can relax that when unemployment reaches the kinds of levels that it is now.

REHM

10:52:03
I see. I see. All right. To Angie in Lewisville, Texas. Good morning. You're on the air.

ANGIE

10:52:12
Good morning. I just wanted to say that, you know, I appreciate the outreaches with the SNAP programs. But, you know, when both my husband and I were unemployed, you know, mortified to have to go apply for anything, then to find out that, you know, my husband was getting unemployment. But because when he was a kid, stupid mistake, you know, has a felony on his record, and, therefore, he doesn't count as a member in my family. But his income from unemployment counts. We have a child, who's hungry, you know.

ANGIE

10:52:53
And we are disqualified because, based upon a two-person household, his unemployment income made us too much money. Then they say, you know, go ahead, go to the food bank, something like that. And we get there, and we're trying to get stuff, and, you know, half the stuff that was there was already expired. But the things that we brought at home that we thought were OK, you know, we had moldy bread, stuff that was expiring within a day or two. Like, I was mortified.

REHM

10:53:27
All right. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Stacy.

DEAN

10:53:35
First of all, thank you for your caller for calling in and sharing a difficult story. Yes, very unfortunately, there is an option in the program for states to preclude individuals with a drug felony conviction from participating in the program and then...

REHM

10:53:51
Or any kind of juvenile record she didn't necessarily...

DEAN

10:53:56
Yeah. She didn't, but that is the limitation on the rule. And so, you know, it's very problematic because you have individuals years later who are productive members of society and fall in hard times and can't get the help they need. And, more importantly, it's an issue of many law enforcement officials feel with respect to recidivism. Folks are released from prison. They need a little help getting back on their feet.

DEAN

10:54:17
They're probably not going to be getting a high-paying job immediately. And SNAP can help put them back on their feet and on the road to success and independence. But, unfortunately, states have the option to limit benefits.

REHM

10:54:29
Eric, do you want to comment?

OLSEN

10:54:31
Oh, I'm just going to comment a little bit about the food at the food banks. You know, we're reliant on donations for food we get. Some of our food comes from the federal government when they go in and buy commodities to support agriculture producers...

REHM

10:54:42
I see.

OLSEN

10:54:43
...and they donate to us. But we're really reliant on the generosity of the American public. And we know that they want to help people, as Steven said.

REHM

10:54:49
So is that where most of the food comes from for the food banks, the generosity of individuals?

FLATEMAN

10:54:58
It used to be. It used to be really a large percentage of the food that we distribute, but that has changed over recent years. A lot of the traditional food sources that we received in the past have been dwindling over time, so...

REHM

10:55:11
Such as from?

FLATEMAN

10:55:11
Such as from retailers, you know, the unsalables, the dented cans, the close-to-code product, food that is still usable but not salable. You know, it's interesting, the caller -- she was talking about the bad food that she got. I just, of course, want to protect our industry and say that Feeding America food banks are highly qualified operations. We're a Feeding America food bank. We know how to handle food. We do not distribute bad food.

REHM

10:55:38
But sometimes it happens.

FLATEMAN

10:55:39
But what can happen is once it gets to the local agency, sometimes the way that food is handled or distributed is not fully up to the standards of Feeding America food banks.

REHM

10:55:50
Steven, does anything that you've heard here this morning in any way change your thinking?

MOORE

10:56:01
Well, first of all, I just want to salute with what my fellow panelists are doing, to help people. I mean, that's the American way, and there is so much compassion and charity in what you do. So thank you. One of the problems I have with all these government benefits is I do think, you know, you ask, well, where is the support going to come from if we don't have these government programs?

MOORE

10:56:20
And I don't think there is a bit of a crowding out effect that people have a I gave at the office kind of mentality if we have all of these government programs. And I think we've sort of displaced the traditional food banks and charities that used to provide this kind of support. And I just think the main thing is we've created a kind of culture in many cities, you know, low-income cities, you have cities where well over half the populations on food stamps. And it's become kind of part of the culture. I think we've got to break that culture of poverty and dependence.

REHM

10:56:53
Steven Moore, he is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, Deborah Flateman of the Maryland Food Bank, Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Eric Olsen of Feeding America. Thank you all so much.

DEAN

10:57:12
Thank you.

MOORE

10:57:13
Are we done? That's all the hour?

FLATEMAN

10:57:13
Thank you, Diane.

REHM

10:57:14
We're done.

REHM

10:57:16
Thanks for listening, all.

DEAN

10:57:18
Too much fun.

REHM

10:57:18
I'm Diane Rehm.

ANNOUNCER

10:57:20
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