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At the national level, the United States Department of Agriculture funds several nutritional assistance programs:
These programs are effective. The WIC Program reduces anemia in children and increases intakes of iron, vitamin B6 and folate, and children who participate in the National School Lunch Program have higher intakes of several key nutrients compared to non-participants.(1) When students participate in the School Breakfast Program test scores, cognitive ability and memory improve and tardiness and absenteeism rates decline.(2) Low-income children who participate in food assistance programs may be less likely to be overweight than low-income children who do not participate in assistance programs.(3)
While food assistance programs are critical to reducing food insecurity, it is also imperative that the fundamental cause of hunger – poverty – is addressed. In 2006, 8 percent of Washington’s population (502,000 individuals) lived below the federal poverty level.(4) Poor working families struggle to
make ends meet while the costs of housing, health care, education, and child care continue to rise. Unfortunately, having a job doesn’t guarantee that a family will be self-sufficient. In Washington, about one in five working families does not make enough to meet their basic needs.(4)The emergency food system of food banks and meal programs for the homeless is not a long term solution to the problem of food insecurity, but it provides a necessary safety net for those who find themselves with immediate needs for food. The food that is donated to emergency feeding programs is often high in fats and sugars and low in vitamins and minerals. Groups like Rotary First Harvest are dedicated to increasing healthy options within the emergency food system. Anti-hunger groups work to improve the distribution of healthy donated food, secure funding for refrigeration at food banks, and educate donors, volunteers and participants about the importance of nutritious foods. The federal Emergency Food Assistance Program provides funding to food banks and meal programs statewide.
The majority of funding for food assistance programs comes from the federal government. However, this funding is often not enough to ensure that all eligible families and individuals can participate and that programs such as the School Breakfast Program can be financially viable for those entities operating the programs. In 1993, the Washington State Legislature created a pool of funds to supplement the federal reimbursement rate for free and reduced-price school breakfasts, but over time fewer resources became available to local schools and new districts were reluctant to start breakfast programs. Washington’s school districts lost close to $20 million in 2005-2006 operating the School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs.(5) In 2006 the Washington legislature voted to provide $1 million to bring the school breakfast reimbursement rate up to 15 cents per meal. While additional funding may still be needed to protect districts from losing money, the increase in the reimbursement rate serves as an incentive to districts to continue to provide school breakfast.
Meeting the most basic needs is difficult for many low-income families and individuals. The high cost of living, coupled with rising health insurance costs, forces many Washington residents to live paycheck to paycheck. An accident or illness, the loss of a job, or an unexpected housing or care expense can be devastating. Some families and individuals have to make the choice between paying their heating bill and buying medicine. Food assistance programs, Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, job opportunities that offer a living wage, and access to affordable housing, health care, and child care can play a critical role in lifting people out of poverty.
The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations defines a living wage job as a job that “allows a family or individual to meet their basic needs without relying on public assistance.”(6) According to the 2007 Northwest Job Gap Study, 30 percent of job openings in Washington pay less than a living wage ($11.16 an hour) for a single adult and as much as 77 percent pay less than the living wage ($23.39 an hour) for a single adult with two children.(6) Washington State’s Opportunity Grants legislation(7) provides financial assistance and support services to help people with low income receive a post-secondary education – an important step toward moving workers into living wage jobs.(8)