Feb. 22, 2006 – Dave Stogsdillâ€™s life has turned up a few surprises in recent years. The last big one was his knees giving out, forcing him to retire on Social Security disability income. These days, the 61-year-old former electrician looks forward to the occasional pleasant surprise in his monthly supplemental food package from the federal government, which periodically serves up his favorites: canned beef and canned tomatoes.
This year, the government may have another surprise in store for Stogsdill. Tucked into the Bush administrationâ€™s 2007 budget plan is a proposal to eliminate the program that helps him and about half a million other Americans get enough to eat. Deemed redundant by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Agricultureâ€™s food program may be scrapped because it supposedly overlaps with larger, parallel programs like food stamps.
But supporters of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) argue that countless low-income participants rely on it for crucial aid they cannot obtain anywhere else.
Despite the White Houseâ€™s claims, Stogsdill sees little redundancy in the resources he cobbles together to make ends meet. He cannot receive food stamps because his subsidized income has rendered him ineligible. As he and his wife struggle to stretch a monthly income of about $1,300 across healthcare expenses, bills and mortgage payments on their home in Greeley, Colorado, he finds that his monthly food package -â€“ worth roughly $50 in retail value -â€“ goes a long way.
Deemed ineffective by the White House, a major food program may be scrapped because it supposedly duplicates other federal benefits.
"Itâ€™s really nice to have," Stogsdill said. "Without it we would probably have to sacrifice something if we wanted to eat."
On average, according to the Department of Agriculture, the CSFP served more than 500,000 people per month in 2005, including over 450,000 people over 60, and thousands of women and children not covered by other nutrition assistance. Based on canned and processed products mass-purchased from the farming industry, the program is not nutritionally complete, but rather is intended to sustain households that might otherwise go hungry. Operating in 32 states, the District of Columbia and two Indian Reservations, CSFP is smaller than the food-stamps program. Yet it still provides about 6.4 million food packages annually to low-income people, costing the government about $110 million, or less than $20 per package at bulk-purchase prices.
Beyond the hard numbers, those who have delivered these resources say that each food package offers a value not quantified in budget books -â€“ the human interaction that fuels the program.
Through community distribution centers and direct deliveries to homebound participants, the volunteer-driven program is a vehicle for outreach to a typically isolated population. Service providers talk to elderly recipients about their lives and their health, and give them information about other assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid.
Beyond the hard numbers, service providers say that each food package offers a value not quantified in budget books â€“ the human interaction that fuels the program.
Andrew Fox, program manager of Louisianaâ€™s CSFP -- which was the nationâ€™s largest before Hurricane Katrina -- said that for volunteers, there is "no such thing as just knock on the door, hand over the food box and leave." As a longtime food-delivery volunteer, he remarked, "After a few months, you kind of become a part of these peopleâ€™s lives."
With only a fraction of the budget of other federal assistance programs, advocates say the CSFP requires little, compared to what it ultimately provides communities. "These are mostly scrappy little programs," said Fox, "kind of operating on a shoestring, utilizing a huge amount of volunteer labor -- and, you know, generating an awful lot of good will and community cohesion."
Nevertheless, CSFP received a failing grade from the OMB in an auditing process known as the Program Assessment Rating Tool, which investigates various federal programs and evaluates performance based on preset criteria.
The main strike, according to the administration, is redundancy. The OMB estimated that a significant portion of the elderly CSFP participants were also eligible for food stamps. The assessment also questioned whether some participating families were illegally double-dipping on benefits, accessing both the CSFP and the separate supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC).
The OMB contended that since the program lacks a formal internal oversight process, it "cannot demonstrate whether it is helping meet the nutritional needs of program participants." The agency recommended eliminating CSFP and integrating the current enrollees into food stamps and WIC.
But advocates for CSFP say it should not be dismissed just for lacking official proof of its effectiveness. In their view, service providers, which include both state agencies and private charities, are essentially being punished for having not received enough funding from Congress to enable such internal assessment projects.
Structural hurdles to food-stamps access could shunt needy people into bureaucratic gaps or push them further towards hunger.
Service organizations have, however, conducted their own research on the impact of the program. The National Commodity Supplemental Food Program Association (NCSFPA), a network of nonprofit and state-program administrators, conducted a national survey of elderly CSFP participants, finding that although the food packages provide a much-needed resource, many gaps remain. Over half of respondents reported that even with the supplement, they ran out of food during the month, and the majority said they were overall not in good health.
"Weâ€™re not serving a population that is squandering what theyâ€™re receiving," remarked Leona Martens, who worked on the survey project and directs the Weld Food Bank of Colorado where Stogsdill receives his food package.
Like other food banks across the country, Weld serves elderly participants with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty line, or about $12,400 a year for an individual, and women with young children up to 185 percent of the poverty line. Of the roughly 5,000 CSFP participants the food bank serves monthly, about 35 percent are seniors; women, infants and children make up the rest.
Though the contents of each package vary according to the client groupâ€™s nutritional needs, a typical package includes powdered milk, canned tuna, canned vegetables and cereal.
In 2004, according to federal data, nearly one in five low-income elderly households faced "food insecurity," or difficulty obtaining enough to eat.
Marten warned that in defunding the CSFP, "Weâ€™re taking that resource away, but weâ€™re not taking away the need."
Though the administrationâ€™s budget proposal provides for limited funds to help elderly participants transition onto food-stamp benefits, critics cite a number of structural hurdles that could shunt needy people into bureaucratic gaps or push them further towards hunger.
According to the NCSFPAâ€™s research, roughly one in four seniors on the program were simultaneously accessing food stamps. Antipoverty advocates say the seniors currently participating in both programs are doing so precisely because food-stamp benefits alone -â€“ which can be as low as $10 per month â€“- are not enough.
"We feel that our seniors need... all of these programs to survive," said Barb Packett, public policy chair of the NCSFPA and director of Nebraskaâ€™s CSFP. "One is not going to take the place of the other."
It is also unclear how many of those not currently receiving food stamps would transition to food stamps if Washington cuts off their food packages. Service providers warn that long lines and a tedious, confusing application process deter many qualified seniors from applying, especially when the potential benefits are so low.
Moreover, according to an analysis by the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an unknown number of elderly CSFP participants would be categorically ineligible under the food-stamp programâ€™s stricter thresholds. For instance, since food-stamp participants cannot have more than $3,000 in assets, the modest savings of some seniors could disqualify them.
Some women and children may also be left in the lurch if the CSFP shuts down. WICâ€™s eligibility structure covers mothers only up to six months following birth, and children only up to the age of five. Historically, the CSFP has helped plug this gap by covering mothers up to a year post-partum and children up to six.
The Centerâ€™s analysis reports that the White House budget projections actually anticipate that 23,000 women and children who do not fit within the more narrow WIC eligibility parameters would simply lose nutritional aid altogether under the new policy.
Antipoverty organizations see nutrition assistance programs as a tool to stave off food insecurity in the short-run, asserting that long-term solutions require building more sustainable, nutritious and equitable food-supply systems. Still, groups are pushing to preserve commodities supplements as a surface-level salve for the deeper ills of poverty and hunger.
Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the anti-hunger group Food Research and Action Center, said that instead of trying to minimize the cost of feeding the poor, the administration should be expanding access to nutrition assistance programs, by "looking for ways to make the combination of CSFP and food stamps a more adequate source of nutrition for that population."
She noted, "There are probably many more vulnerable people out there who could be using both programs."