Study Suggests Why Food Assistance for Homeless Young Adults is Inadequate

Though young homeless adults make use of available food programs, these support structures still often fail to provide reliable and consistent access to nutritious food, according to the results of a new study by a University at Buffalo social work researcher.

The findings, which fill an important gap in the research literature, can help refine policies and programs to better serve people experiencing homelessness, particularly those between the ages of 18-24.

“It may be tempting to think of food pantries, soup kitchens and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as the solution,” says Elizabeth Bowen, an assistant professor in UB’s School of Social Work and lead author of the study with Andrew Irish, a UB graduate student in the School of Social Work, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. But these supports are not enough. “We’re still seeing high levels of food insecurity, literal hunger, where people go a whole day without eating anything.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” Hunger is a “potential consequence of food insecurity [that] results in discomfort, illness, weakness or pain.” In Bowen’s study, 80 percent of participants were considered to be severely food insecure.

“There has been recent research about housing and shelter use for homeless young adults, as well as work on drug use and sexual risk behaviors for this same population, but I found that not much had been done on the issue of food access,” says Bowen. “It’s hard to even think about housing and health needs if we don’t know how people are eating, or not eating.”

It’s not surprising see a relationship between homelessness and food insecurity, but Bowen warns of oversimplifying what is in fact a more nuanced problem.

“This research is important because we’re establishing a clear indication of food insecurity in this population, which we did not previously have,” she says. “If we’re going to design programs and services that better address food insecurity, along with addressing housing, education and employment, we need to know about the access strategies: How and what are homeless young adults eating? Where are they finding food? What do they have to do to get it? And how does that affect other parts of their lives?”

For her qualitative study, Bowen conducted in-depth interviews with 30 young adults between the ages of 18-24 who were experiencing homelessness in Buffalo, New York.

“Working with this small group gives us insights into the lived experience,” says Bowen. “It’s a way of setting a knowledge foundation and understanding of the topic in the context of people’s lives, and what goes on with their health, housing, relationships, education and trying to get out of homelessness.”

In Bowen’s study, 70 percent of young adults were receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps. But actually getting these benefits can be difficult.

SNAP covers dependent children under their parent’s benefits until the child’s 22nd birthday. But the program administers benefits based on the parents’ address and assumes that parents and children of a single family are living together.

“This is clearly a problem for young people experiencing homelessness since many of them are under 22 and obviously aren’t living at the same address as their parents,” says Bowen. “The young people in this case can’t get SNAP on their own because they’re already listed on their parents’ open application for those same benefits – and the burden of proof is on the young person to demonstrate they don’t live with their parents.”

Documentation is required as proof that the family is no longer together, according to Bowen, but in many cases getting the necessary paperwork is difficult because of strained family relationships.

“That’s one avenue for a policy change,” says Bowen.

But even with revised eligibility guidelines, food stamps sometimes are not enough, particularly for homeless young people who have no way to store or prepare food. Bowen notes that this problem would be greatly exacerbated by a change proposed in the 2019 federal budget to convert part of a household’s SNAP benefits from electronic benefits to a box of canned goods and other commodities.

Homeless young adults’ food access challenges are further compounded by the fact that young people are sometimes reluctant to use resources like soup kitchens, or have trouble accessing these places due to transportation barriers and limited hours. This finding mirrors prior research showing how young adults are not comfortable in places meant for the general homeless adult population, according to Bowen.

For instance, where shelter is concerned, an 18-year-old in the city of Buffalo is considered an adult and would go to an adult shelter, which can feel discouraging and unsafe.

“What I found in this study is that people were saying the same things about places to get food. They know about these soup kitchens, but the places feel institutional and stigmatized to young people,” says Bowen. “If we want to develop food programs to be engaging to young people we have to think about breaking down some barriers. For example, because of food insecurity among students, many college campuses are now offering food pantries. I would like to think about how to integrate food pantries and other services into places where young people are going anyway.”

Resource for SNAP Users

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According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average food stamp allotment is approximately $40 per person, per week. Many social workers work with clients who food security is based on this tight food budget. When faced with such a limited budget, it is very difficult to feed your family a variety of healthy foods. However, there are many resources available that can assist families with this task.

Not only can these resources be used by individuals and families who are on a food stamp budget, anyone who is looking to save money and maybe at a bit more healthily in the process can use them as well.

Budget Bytes features delicious, healthy meals with a cost break down at the end of each post. These recipes include many ingredients that may seem too expensive for someone on a tight budget, but they are used in a way that allows for savings in other places. The blog creator, Beth, has also participated in the SNAP Challenge in the past. During the SNAP Challenge, participants pledged to spend no more than the average food stamp budget for one month. A part of the challenges, bloggers like Beth were encouraged to write about their experiences. More articles about the SNAP Challenge can be found in the Huffington Post and the Food Research and Action Center.

In addition to recipe resources, there are also other ways to help stretch the SNAP budget. For example, programs such as Market Match in California offer to double the dollar amount for SNAP recipients at many farmers markets. This allows people twice as much money to spend on fresh produce as before. As produce is one of the most expensive parts of any food budget, so these programs allow families better access to healthy options.

Money Saving Mom has an enormous amount of resources for anyone on a strict budget. Some of her most popular articles and tips include shopping the circulars, how to pair coupons with existing sales, and how to play the drugstore game. Additionally, there are many resources and articles regarding other areas of budgeting, which may also be helpful for some clients.

For many of our clients, their only food budget comes from food stamps. When on a budget that tight, any tips are likely to be helpful. Hopefully some of these resources can help not only individuals and families who receive SNAP benefits, but also aid those who are looking to save money overall.

America’s Food Waste: Perfect Solutions to an Imperfect Problem

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Currently, approximately one-third of food produced worldwide goes to waste each year. In a world where 1.2 billion people are either food insecure or undernourished, we must begin to look towards solutions. In the United States, it is estimated that about 40% of produced food goes to waste. However, getting food from the farm to people’s plates consumes 10% of the US energy budget, 50% of the land, and 80% of the freshwater.

Recently, the Huffington Post has started a campaign to bring to light the massive amount of food waste that currently exists in America while highlighting ways to be less wasteful and more sustainable. This campaign has been named “Reclaim”, and the goal is to re-connect American’s to their food and its production. There are many ways to do this, and several countries worldwide have already begun to change the way they look at food.

One way the average citizen can do this is by signing a petition asking Wal-Mart to sell imperfect produce. According to endfoodwaste.org, around 25% of produce is wasted before it even gets to the grocery store for no reason other than it looking different from what consumers are used to and perhaps conditioned to buying. Last year, a similar petition was presented to Whole Foods resulting in the company changing their policy and beginning to offer misshapen or otherwise marked fruits and vegetables at a discounted price. With Wal-Mart being one of the largest retailers in the United States, the adoption of a similar policy could make a huge difference in the amount of produce Americans waste.

There is an international precedent for both creating this kind of petition and selling imperfect produce. In 2014, the European Union declared the year of Food Waste, and began imploring its member countries research and use practices that would lead to an overall reduction in food waste. The French supermarket chain Intermarché responded with its “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign. This campaign sold imperfect produce at a discount, as well as soups and juices made from those vegetables, in an effort to show consumers that there truly is no difference. The results were astounding and stores were reporting a 24% increase in store traffic.

Additionally, British supermarket giant Tesco has also begun to sell “wonky” vegetables, through their campaign “Perfectly Imperfect”, which, like its French counterpart, sells odd looking, non-standard vegetables at a discount to encourage consumers to stop overlooking them. Tesco has gone one step further in curbing food waste, by donating surplus food to charity through a program called the Community Food Connection.

The Community Food Connection links Tesco stores to local food charities, in a mutually beneficial relationship. Tesco is wasting significantly less food, the pilot program generated more than 50,000 meals for the needy, and food charities are able to further stretch their budgets. In the United States, Trader Joe’s has a similar policy; individual stores have a donations coordinator who functions as a liaison between the stores and local food banks and soup kitchens to donate food that is safe for consumption, but for some reason not fit for sale.

Food waste continues to be a significant problem not only in the United States, but also internationally. Presently, it appears that other countries, particularly those within the European Union are vigorously tackling this problem and focusing on more sustainable practices and solutions. However, at this time, it appears that the United States has fallen behind again. Hopefully, over the next several weeks, the Huffington Post in conjunction with other media sources, can help bring to light the massive food waste in this country and help us begin to find solutions.

Starving Student Is No Longer A Euphemism But A Serious Reality

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We all have heard the term the “starving student”, but typically it’s a reference to playfully tease a student who has limited pocket money. However, the starving student is no longer a playful joke, but rather a serious reality many 20-something year old college students face. A recent study commissioned by Cal State University (CSU) Chancellor Timothy P. White reveals that one in 10 Cal State students are homeless, and one in five do not have access to sufficient food.

The findings of the study have been shocking to administrators, faculty, and the public alike. For social work students at California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) this week’s breaking news comes as no surprise.

This spring, Cal State LA’s Association of Student Social Workers hosted Box City, a two-day event in which students and faculty, simulated street-dwelling by assembling boxes and tents at the university campus. Over the course of the night, they raised awareness and donations for homelessness in Los Angeles while simultaneously, gaining empathy and understanding by experiencing what it is like to be without a home for a night.

What started as an event to raise awareness on homelessness occurring in the neighboring communities turned into something much more.

As the outreach officer for ASSW, I assisted in promoting the event. As I began to reach out to more and more students about issues of homelessness and the reasons why to attend Box City, the more I began to recognize that housing and food insecurities was not unfamiliar territory for students at Cal State LA. Students began sharing with me their own personal stories of nights without a shelter, and how they would attend club meetings on campus because they were assured a free meal.

It was ironic. Here we were, venturing off to help the very issue that was right at our front door step. Homelessness was happening right in front of us, and many of us did not see it.

During the course of the Box City we invited a student to speak on his experience of being homeless. When the event concluded, a few students who have also faced housing and food insecurities privately thanked ASSW for hosting the event and showing them they were not alone and that people cared about their wellbeing.

I am going to reiterate that this event was not initially aimed for the students at Cal State LA. During the planning process of Box City we were unaware of the homeless population on campus. However, we are thankful we were able to bring awareness on this invisible issue amongst us on campus: homeless students.

I think we can all agree that with today’s fast-paced world juggling work, academics, and a personal life can make pursuing a higher degree difficult, but for one in 10 CSU students they also have to worry whether or not they will have a safe place to sleep and a nutritional meal to fuel their body.

Currently, CSU campuses have enacted their own initiatives on how to address students’ need for housing and food security; however, this is resulting in many campuses falling short from providing needed services.

To ensure that students’ needs are met, we need to advocate for a Cal State University (CSU) system wide commitment policy that addresses the housing and food insecurities, develop a program in which there is a single point of contact to facilitate connections to services on and off campus, and assign ASI and students to have a lead role in the outreach to destigmatize assistance to food and housing.

Today, many students don’t speak out about their housing and food instability because of fear of being stigmatized by peers, unaware of how to receive assistance, and the lack of assistance available. Faculty, administrators, and Social Work departments at CSUs need to work together to create solutions, and give a voice for the students at CSUs whose basic needs are not being met.

Alternative Food Banks: Offering Fresh Ideas for Fresh Foods

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According to Feeding America, 48.1 million, or 14.8 %, people are food insecure in the United States. There are many programs that offer food assistance, both governmental and non-governmental. These include food banks, SNAP benefits, and WIC benefits, which specifically help women and children. Due to the growing need of American families, some communities have established non-traditional food programs.

Mobile Foodshare, which serves Hartford and Tolland counties in Connecticut, uses converted trucks to deliver food directly to those in need. Instead of having to go to a specific site, which may be difficult for some service users to get to, the trucks visit over seventy different sties throughout Hartford and Tolland counties, brining fresh, nutritious food directly to those in need.

Oftentimes, people who rely on food stamps and other forms of nutritional assistance do not eat as healthily as they would like. Fresh, healthy foods cost more than many pre-packaged, sugar and sodium laden foods, and for those who are on a strict budget, it is easy to see the appeal of buying less healthy foods and stretching the budget. While many farmers’ markets accept SNAP benefits, the produce is still expensive. The Produce Plus program has seen this problem and is working to solve it.

Produce Plus is an incentive program, run through the D.C. Department of Health, which gives individuals and families with SNAP or other governmental benefits extra money to use at farmer’s markets. Each day, an individual or family who qualifies can get two $5 checks per market, per day, to help them afford fresh, healthy, local foods. These checks are in addition to their benefit money, thus expanding their budget for fresh foods by at least $10 per day.

Operation Sharing, a church based charity in Ontario, began their Food for Friends project around ten years ago. Instead of the traditional food bank model, which is often full of processed, sugar, and sodium laden options, the system uses pre-loaded grocery cards which people can use to buy non-taxable food items. At local grocery stores, community members can donate to Food for Friends when they check out. Typically, non-taxable food items include fresh foods, such as meats, dairy, and vegetables, as opposed to processed, boxed goods.

BackPack Beginnings is a North Carolina based charity, which provides food, and comfort backpacks to local children. The comfort packs are for children who are being removed from their homes due to trauma, abuse, or neglect and contain items such as clean clothes, toiletries, and a stuffed animal.

The food backpacks were created to fill the weekend gap for children in food insecure households. Many students who receive free or reduced price lunches during the school week go home to empty cabinets on the weekends. Students are given a backpack with four meals for the weekend on Thursday, all of which include milk, fruits, and vegetables.

Hunger continues to be a major problem for many Americans. Traditional forms of food assistance are very helpful for food insecure individuals and families, but for many reasons, sometimes these forms of assistance are not available for people, or their assistance falls short of what is needed. The many alternatives to the traditional model aim to fill the gaps for struggling families.

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