Food insecurity impacts residents in every county across Illinois. More than 1.2 million people in Illinois face hunger and about 30% are children. The Covid-19 pandemic and historic food inflation have only exacerbated the need for food, meaning that food insecurity is an increasing problem. As a result, more Illinois households are turning to food banks and federal nutrition programs to help put food on the table.
Federal nutrition programs and the emergency food system work together to protect Illinois families against hunger and improve their access to nutritious food. Several of these programs are authorized in the farm bill, making it an important opportunity to strengthen our nutritional safety net to work better for Illinois residents.
Feeding Illinois food banks play a critical role in responding to food insecurity by enrolling families in SNAP, distributing TEFAP commodities, and delivering CSFP food boxes. In the upcoming Farm Bill, our food banks urge members of Congress and the Biden Administration to adopt the following policy priorities to better connect hungry people with the nutrition they need to thrive.
SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (SNAP)
SNAP is the nation’s largest anti-hunger program. While SNAP serves individuals of all ages, most SNAP households have a child, older adult, or individual with a disability. In Illinois, 41% of SNAP households have children, 24% have an elderly individual, and 18% have a non-elderly individual with a disability[i]. Nationally, households with a child, senior, or disabled member receive 84.7% of all SNAP benefits.
Improve Benefit Adequacy
SNAP benefits should be set at a level so that families can purchase an adequate, nutritious diet. Currently, about 89% of SNAP benefits are exhausted by the third week of the month, meaning benefits are not sufficient to meet participants’ nutritional needs[ii]. Congress should take action to improve SNAP benefit adequacy.
- By increasing the minimum benefit, we can ensure that older adults, people with disabilities, people working low-wage jobs, and others likely to qualify for the minimum benefit have the assistance they need to support their nutritional needs.
- Basing SNAP benefits on the Low-Cost Food Plan, rather than the Thrifty Food Plan, will ensure that benefits are based on a more realistic market basket of foods that families eat today and enable families to fully afford a nutritious diet.
- Congress should add an inflationary trigger that adjusts SNAP for food inflation more than once per year in years with above average food inflation to ensure that benefits keep pace with the cost of food.
Remove Enrollment Barriers for Older Adults, Immigrants, and College Students
While SNAP does a good job of reaching the eligible population overall, there are certain populations that have low uptake of SNAP despite their eligibility. For example, pre-pandemic only 47% of eligible older adults were enrolled in SNAP compared to 78% of the population overall[iii]. Current eligibility rules and enrollment processes can be complicated and confusing, particularly for seniors, college students, and mixed status households.
- While states currently have the option to extend the certification period for older adults from 12 to 36 months, Congress should make this federal policy, recognizing that older adults on a fixed income don’t experience the same fluctuations in income eligibility and making it easier for them to maintain enrollment in SNAP.
- Simplify college student eligibility rules, which currently include a confusing mix of requirements around school enrollment, work hours, workforce training, and work study grants.
- Lift the arbitrary five-year waiting period for Legal Permanent Residents to qualify for SNAP benefits.
THE EMERGENCY FOOD ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (TEFAP)
TEFAP provides nutritious staples for distribution by food banks through hundreds of pantries, soup kitchens, and other community organizations that help hungry Illinoisans put food on the table. TEFAP also has a strong impact on the farm economy. TEFAP purchases give U.S. growers and producers an average of 27 cents per dollar; by contrast, just around 16 cents of every retail food dollar goes back to farmers[iv].
Ensure Adequate Funding for TEFAP Commodities
Annual mandatory funding for TEFAP commodities has been inadequate to meet the increasing need for emergency food during the COVID-19 pandemic and historic inflation, leaving the nation’s food bank network dependent on emergency one-time purchases of food. Congress should increase its mandatory commitment to the emergency food system to ensure a stable and adequate supply of food through the emergency food system.
- Increase TEFAP commodity baseline funding to $450 million a year indexed to inflation to ensure that TEFAP food levels remain steady throughout the nation’s emergency food assistance network, continue to help households facing hunger, and support the U.S. agricultural economy.
- Add an inflationary trigger that adjusts TEFAP for food inflation more than once per year in years with above average food inflation.
Provide Adequate Resources for Storage and Distribution
Food banks rely on a network of pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens to distribute food to food insecure neighbors. The safe and efficient distribution of food requires investments in cold storage and transportation to ensure that food reaches communities most in need and to ensure that foods are distributed with maximum food safety and minimal food waste.
- Authorize $200 million per year for TEFAP Storage and Distribution funds and $15 million per year for TEFAP Infrastructure Grants to help better cover the cost of distributing TEFAP foods, especially in underserved and rural communities.
Explore Opportunities for Sourcing Local and Regional Foods for Distribution Through Food Banks
During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA experimented with new ways of sourcing food for distribution through the emergency food system, including local and regional sourcing. In addition to supporting supply chain resiliency, these investments have a stimulative effect on local economies.
- Pilot a new program to source from local and regional growers, particularly BIPOC and socially disadvantaged farmers and urban agriculture.
COMMODITY SUPPLEMENTAL FOOD PROGRAM (CSFP)
CSFP is the only USDA nutrition program that provides monthly food assistance specially targeted to low-income seniors. The program is designed to meet the unique nutritional needs of participants, supplementing diets with a monthly package of healthy, nutritious USDA commodities. CSFP foods are all U.S. grown and produced products. While the cost to USDA to provide the food package is about $27 per month, the average retail value is $50, making it a highly efficient use of federal dollars[v].
Redesign Food Box with Older Adults in Mind
The monthly CSFP food box is comprised of a variety of canned, dry, and shelf-stable grocery items that weigh around 25-35 pounds, along with a 2-pound block of American cheese. Older adults may have physical limitations that make it difficult to load CSFP boxes in and out of their vehicles or carry them on public transportation. Many older adults have health concerns that cause diet restrictions, but distribution sites typically have no information on the nutritional content of menu items, for example whether vegetables are low-sodium or no salt added or whether fruit is packed with fruit juice, light syrup, or heavy syrup.
- Task USDA with making menu items lighter and more flexible so that the food box can be handled more easily by the older adults the program is intended to serve.
- Increase the nutritional requirements of the CSFP box and therefore the USDA menu, focusing on low sodium products and items packed in real fruit juice versus heavy syrup.
- Expand the number of items in each category on the CSFP menu, increasing variety and cultural relevancy for participants.
Provide Support for Home Delivery of CSFP Food Boxes
Many of the individuals that would benefit from CSFP lack access to transportation or are homebound due to illness or disability. 40.2% of food insecure seniors have a disability, and 46.4% of very low food security seniors have a disability.[vi] Although CSFP has an option for a proxy to pick-up a participant’s monthly food box, many senior individuals lack the family or community support needed for this to be successful option. Many CSFP community partners are eager to provide home delivery options, but additional resources are needed.
- Increase CSFP distribution funding to enable CSFP community partners to expand home delivery options.
Simplifying and Modernizing Program Administration
The vast majority of older adults live on a fixed income, meaning their financial situation does not vary substantially year to year, thus making an annual recertification of eligibility for the program excessive and burdensome for both administrators and participants. Seniors also face barriers by having to apply for the program in person and sign for every month’s box pickup.
- Extend recertification periods from 12 months to 36 months, reflecting the fixed financial situation of the vast majority of older adults on the program and reducing administrative burden for participants and program administrators.
- Allow telephonic and/or electronic signatures on CSFP applications and recertifications to enable states to establish telephone and online application systems that would increase program access and facilitate data sharing between program sites for the tracking and transfer of participants.
[i] https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/Characteristics2020.pdf Table B.5.a
[ii] https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/SNAPEBT-BenefitRedemption.pdf Table 3.1
[iii] https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/snap-trends-fy2016-2020.pdf Figure ES.2
[vi] The State of Senior Hunger in 2020; https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2022-05/The%20State%20of%20Senior%20Hunger%20in%202020_Full%20Report%20w%20Cover.pdf