“I am concerned that there is intention among elements in Congress to cut SNAP….Something I think many people have forgotten: JFK’s first executive order was to pilot a food stamp program.”  

                                                 – Dr. Janet Poppendieck


About Dr. Janet Poppendieck: Janet Poppendieck has been a professor of sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York since 1976. She is a nationally recognized scholar and activist whose work focuses on poverty, hunger and food assistance in the United States. She is also the author of several noteworthy books and was a W.K. Kellogg Foundation National Fellow.

Her seminal book – Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement – was published in 1999. It offered an important critique of the policies and responses to hunger in the United States. 

In this Q&A, Dr. Poppendieck discusses a range of social issues, including the seemingly intractable issue of childhood hunger, school lunch policy, poverty, wage erosion and growing inequality in America.

Hunter sociologist Janet Poppendieck, author of the nationally acclaimed book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, was summoned to Washington to give them some tips. Photos ©2010 Dan Z. Johnson 267-772-9441 dan@danzphoto.net www.danzphoto.net
Janet Poppendieck. Credit: Dan Johnson


Q: Childhood hunger in America seems intractable. We’ve been unable to end it. What do we need to do differently?

Dr. Poppendieck: I think the question of why it’s so intractable is really a question of why poverty seems to be so intractable. Children don’t have an income separate from their parents. As long as we structure our economy in ways that are going to push so many households into poverty, we won’t be able to solve hunger.

Close to half of American households will spend some time in poverty in their lifetime. The population in poverty is constantly shifting. Some desperately poor folks remain poor for very long periods of time. But most poor people shift in and out of official poverty. The poverty line is so unrealistically low in terms of what it takes for people to participate fully in the life of their society and their community, or even to meet their basic necessities, that many people with incomes above the official poverty line are still struggling.

There’s a measurement and definition issue here that’s misleading.

Childhood poverty is intractable because we haven’t taken the steps we need to assure the economic well being of the bottom tiers of earners. It’s not only the availability of work. The U.S. doesn’t have government as employer of last resort programs. There has been a loss of public works in this nation. Many societies recognize that when the economy shrinks, it’s important to maintain a stable of public works projects that need to be done so that the economy can be ready to accommodate workers when employment falls.

We also don’t have an incomes policy. The earned income tax credit is a terrific social program. It has provided a kind of stealth economic cushion and served as a wealth redistributor. I’m glad we have it, but it only works when families are employed. We don’t have an effective unemployment insurance policy; it’s too short and too limited. And our income policies for people who cannot or should not work seem designed to keep people poor. So we have neither work nor incomes policies that prevent folks from falling into poverty.

Q: What can we do?

Dr. Poppendieck: I look forward to the day when we have both the clarity and political will to have both of these things. Short of that, there are things we can do to make sure that poverty doesn’t completely blight the lives of children. Childhood nutrition programs, the school food program and adult and child feeding programs come in to play here. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and preschool programs are also very important. We have tried and sort of know how to do it, but we,  We have tried and sort of know how to do it, but we have fallen short in investing what we need to make these programs operate most effectively.

Editor’s Note: The Women, Infants, and Children program – WIC – is operated by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. It provides Federal grants to States for supplemental food, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women. It also provides resources to families with infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

I have two major concerns with the school food program. They are the traditional concerns of social policy analysts: access and quality. We haven’t invested enough to serve really high quality meals. Recent standards and attention have helped. But there remains a low investment level that pushes schools towards using industrialized, pre-processed food. On the quality front, we need to invest more per meal.

On the access front, I’m even more convinced than ever that we need to move towards universal, free school meals. The part of the means tested school meals that originally engaged me was the stigma that qualifying imposed on children and families. The stigma migrates from the child to the food. So in school communities, food may come to be perceived as second quality, even if it’s pretty good. Kids call it welfare, county or jail food. Being associated with poverty undermines the reputation of the food. I hear it from food service directors from all over the country, all the time. In New York they call it “free-free.”


Q: The numbers concern you…

Dr. Poppendieck: The more I have looked at the numbers, the more concerned I am about kids with a family income that doesn’t qualify for free or reduced meals. Many children come from families that are barely making it. The families can’t afford to purchase the school meal at full price for all their children, so they are sending what they can cobble together or giving the kids $1 to go the corner store. Kids are being excluded from healthy meals and the parents need that security.

This has to do in part with the enormous variance in the cost of living in U.S. I gave testimony to a national hunger commission in Albany, NY. I compared the cost of living between Albany, Georgia and Albany, New York. Huge difference. Editor’s Note: Various online cost of living calculators indicate that the cost of housing in Albany, NY is up to 65% higher than housing in Albany, GA.

I’ve begun to pay more attention to those kids who are over the cut off. The Community Eligibility Program [CEP] has been a terrific leap forward for school food programs; it allows school systems to feed all, free of charge and receive full federal reimbursements for a substantial percentage of the meals served. It is a bit complicated.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Poppendieck explains how the Community Eligibility Program works. She provides one of the best explanations I’ve ever heard. I’ve included that text here:

“Certain youth are categorically eligible for free school meals, without paper applications: children whose households participate in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), foster children, homeless and runaway and migrant children.

In CEP, when the local welfare department provides schools with lists of these children (called “direct certification”) these are regarded as“identified students.” Schools or groups of schools or even entire school districts can participate in CEP if the Identifed Student rate is equal to or greater than 40% of total enrollment. The federal government will reimburse schools at the full free-meal reimbursement rate for 1.6 times the identified student percentage. So if a school district has 50 % identified students, it can receive the full free meal reimbursement for 80% of the meals served. This provision has enabled school districts across the nation that have large numbers of low income students to serve free meals to all, reducing paper work, reaching children in need who are above the income cut off, and gradually removing the stigma. Unfortunately, this great program is currently under attack in the House of Representatives.”


Q: How is the Community Eligibility Option faring in this political climate?

Dr. Poppendieck: There is a bill currently offered by the U.S. House of Representative Committee on Education and Workforce Development that would dramatically restrict the Community Eligibility Option. We need to make sure that version doesn’t become the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization. Preserving this option is as least important as implementing the calendar for sodium reductions.


Q: What should presidential candidates be talking about?

Dr. Poppendieck: They should continue to talk about wages. If you look at the statistics for participation in SNAP and food pantries you see that a higher and higher percentages of people have someone who is employed in the household.

Increasingly, Americans are using food assistance to meet the needs of a family where someone is employed. That reflects wage erosion.

I would also like to see candidates continue to talk about school lunches. I am eternally grateful to Michelle Obama for putting the quality of school food on the map. I spoke mostly about community eligibility program because it’s less well known. The change that was fostered by Let’s Move! when it comes to schools goes beyond the new standards; it’s a whole new awareness of the importance of food as a form of education, that what we feed our children in school and elsewhere is teaching them about food. That is an aspect of school food of which we’ve really only begun to achieve the potential. I believe if we made school food universal we could then integrate it with the school day and it could become part of the educational program.

Credit: USDA

I recently visited San Diego Unified School District. They have done a wonderful job with their breakfast in the classroom program and the vegetable of the week program in their salad bars. They make educational videos that feature local growers of vegetables; I saw one about an avocado orchard. Staff showed the video they had made about the people who were growing the avocados during the breakfast in the classroom, as a way to teach kids about what grows in San Diego County and what issues farmers face (in this case, water). This encouraged kids to try the “vegetable of the week,’ avocados, form the salad bar at lunch. I thought it was brilliant and a model for what we could be doing if we made school food universal so it applies to everybody. It is an enormous opportunity for food education, for food literacy.

I would like to see the candidates talking about school food. We know more than we ever did about the importance of healthy food. Health has become such a challenge for government at all levels because of the financial and workforce implications.

I would also like to see some leadership around SNAP. I am concerned about the “soup to nuts” review of SNAP by the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. I am not concerned about testimony; it has been overwhelmingly positive about the importance of SNAP. I am concerned that there is intention among elements in Congress to cut SNAP.

Paul Ryan wants to block grant SNAP in the same way that welfare was block granted in the mid-90s. It was a disaster for poor people. We need to remember that every $5 of SNAP generates $9 of economic activity, often close to home. The program impacts job availability and the viability of retail grocers in low income neighborhoods.

Something I think many people have forgotten: JFK’s first executive order was to pilot a food stamp program.

Q: About twenty years ago, your book – Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement – was published. It has proved a seminal book for researchers in the field and students. What changes have you seen in the food system since then?

Dr. Poppendieck: Looking back over 20 years of charitable food system changes I see many things.

The language has changed. We are much less likely to refer to it as “emergency” food. There is much greater recognition that we need to pay to attention to nutrient quality. The emergency/charitable food system has responded…there is much more produce in food banks/pantries, more high-quality frozen food. Overall, more nutritious food is available.charity_225h

On the other side of the nutrition equation, it is difficult for food banks to resist the temptation to accept donations of less nutritious foods. They are dependent on some of the same donors for high-quality, nutritious food and rely on measures such as poundage to calculate their metrics. Soft drinks are heavy. So the question arises: If we refuse to carry soft drinks, we will see a reduction in poundage. But overall, there is a much greater awareness of health in food banks.

I think there is a much more extensive and effective system for using food pantries and other frontline programs that interact with poor families as a way to connect those families with the public benefits to which they are entitled. That is particularly true of SNAP outreach. Food banks have become experts about how to do SNAP outreach, even to the point of setting up spaces where people can sit down, use the computer and apply for SNAP. It makes these programs more accessible.

That is a real change from what I saw when I was working on Sweet Charity, when only a few food banks were engaged in SNAP outreach.

There have been significant improvements. We have a subset of food banks across the country that are beginning to talk clearly about shortening lines and measuring success by taking actions in their communities that make fewer people poor. They are trying to address the underlying causes of poverty so that people don’t need to rely on food banks.

Inequality is worse by a significant amount than when I wrote about it in 1998. I was shocked when I looked at inequality statistics then. But inequality figures from the mid-90s would be such an improvement over the current situation.

We are doing food assistance better in the charitable and public sector…in the Great Recession one out of seven people were using public assistance for food, but poor people are not better off because of the steep reduction in wages. Families are working more jobs and still not reaching the poverty level. The disappearance of cash welfare has had an impact; there are downstream consequences of welfare reform and a tremendous reduction in the number of households aided by cash assistance.

Simply put, poor people are not better off and inequality is now worse.

Q: Anything else that you would like to share?

Dr. Poppendieck: Campaign finance reform is vital. I think one of the most important things that’s happened lately is the revelation of dialing for dollars by House members. I first became aware of that when the Democrat leader of the West Virginia legislature invited me down for a screening of A Place at the Table. He shared with me how upsetting it was to see that and it had dissuaded him from wanting to run for higher office.

And it has introduced distortions into our system…and it is not just the extraordinary concentration of power and prostituting of legislators. It also impacts who is willing to be a legislator. We need leadership from Congress – both branches – and a complete overhaul of how we fund politics in this nation. More inequality concentrates wealth and leads to a less effective democracy. And we need to ask the question: How is it that poor people are faring so poorly in our economy? It is probably because the political deck so is so stacked against them. Fundamentally, we need to redistribute wealth in order to redistribute power, and redistribute power in order to redistribute wealth. I think we have reached levels of inequality in which neither democracy nor the economy is sustainable.

Related Links:

Caroline Cahill, Feeding America Child Hunger Corps

Bill Shore, Sharing Our Strength

Pat Crawford, University of California researcher