NH Fiscal Policy Institute holds panel to address food insecurity

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 2/5/2021 11:23:33 AM

Trends from the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute suggest that New Hampshire’s food insecure households recovered from the Great Recession slower than the rest of the nation – a trend that has worsened in the state as complications from the coronavirus crisis continue to arise.

NHFPI hosted a virtual event Feb. 3 featuring guest speakers from the New Hampshire Food Bank and New Hampshire Hunger Solutions in an effort to understand trends of food security in the midst of the pandemic. The presentation, titled Food Insecurity and Economic Conditions During the Great Recession and the COVID-19 Crisis, highlighted New Hampshire residents’ ongoing struggles with food insecurity and endeavors to combat the issue.

A household qualifies as food insecure if, at any time in the past year, they were unable to acquire adequate food for a member of the household due to insufficient money or resources. Data compiled by NHFPI suggests that food insecurity levels vary among certain family compositions: homes where the house-holder identifies as Black or Hispanic, families with young children and families that rent their home tend to have higher poverty rates in New Hampshire.

The Great Recession, from 2007 to 2009, led to an increase in food insecurity across the nation, which lasted from 2011 to 2013, according to the data from NHFPI. At that point, the national rate of food insecurity began to gradually decline.

NHFPI policy analyst Michael Polizzotti said that during that time New Hampshire’s decline occurred at a slower rate than the rest of the nation. Data also showed that food insecurity was at elevated levels for longer in New Hampshire, notably from 2010 to 2017, which could’ve been due to limited income growth, changes in employment opportunities or differing policy landscapes.

Polizzotti said COVID-19 continues to increase levels of food insecurity in New Hampshire. The key to mitigating that increase, he said, is providing aid to those most impacted by the crisis, such as low-wage earners who are limited in their income growth.

A widespread problem

The New Hampshire Food Bank’s numbers, published in October 2020 by Feeding America, suggest that food insecurity has risen from around 9% to over 13%, meaning that about 55,000 Granite Staters were experiencing food insecurity. The food bank’s executive director, Eileen Liponis, believes rates are even higher today. She noted that the food bank purchased more food in March 2020 than in all of 2019.

The U.S Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey reports that nearly half of New Hampshire adults reported a loss of household employment income between March and July 2020. This new spike in unemployment may be compounding challenges that low-income Granite State families have faced since the Great Recession, contributing to the increase in food insecurity across the state.

The rising unemployment due to COVID-19 is also increasing the number of people in a household as family members lean on each other to cope with trying times - whether it’s siblings moving in together, children moving back in with parents, or parents moving back in with children.

“There’s more mouths to feed per household. We’re seeing that in our numbers, and folks are telling us that it’s unemployment,” Liponis said.

Educating people about solutions and support

Laura Milliken, executive director of New Hampshire Hunger Solutions, said the organization’s priorities include getting the word out about nutrition programs and reducing barriers in administration to help individuals in need apply for them.

She said that New Hampshire generally has low participation in federal nutrition programs. Nationally, New Hampshire ranks 47th for school breakfast participation, 36th for use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), 32nd in the Child Aid and Adult Care Food Program, and 25th in the summer meals program. The Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) serves only 37 percent of those in the state who are eligible, according to Milliken.

Despite the need, SNAP enrollment in New Hampshire hasn’t increased since the start of the pandemic. Milliken said the increase in income from unemployment could have made people ineligible for SNAP, and when the benefits decreased again, they may not have known they could reapply.

Liponis said there has been an increase in calls to the Food Bank’s hotline, but said a lot of folks might not realize that they’re eligible for assistance programs like SNAP, or know where to apply.

“It is a tremendous amount of awareness and education that has to happen in order for SNAP to be taken advantage of the way it should be fully utilized,” she said.

Even families who qualify for benefits, buying food can be overwhelmingly expensive. SNAP is calculated at a cost of $1.86 per meal, but The Urban Policy Institute calculated that costs per meal in New Hampshire are much higher: $2.43 in Cheshire county and $2.80 in Sullivan county.

In addition, some people choose not to apply for benefits even if they’re eligible.

“Our biggest enemy is shame and stigma,” Liponis said. “If we can conquer that, we’d get a lot more people fed.”

Part of that includes educating the public about food insecurity and the programs in place to help address it.

“There needs to be more education, awareness of the program, and make it more of a community event,” Liponis said.

Milliken said hunger is too often thought of as personal responsibility or misfortune, but that people should not hesitate to get help feeding their families.

“New Hampshire families need to know about these programs,” Milliken said. “Getting a word out about the programs that are available and how to apply is an absolutely critical first step.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
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