Elaine Waxman is the Vice President of Research and Analysis at Feeding America and leads the team that will be conducting Hunger in America 2014. This study is the largest examination of the charitable response to hunger and the largest volunteer driven research study. This is the sixth time we have conducted this research (you can read about Hunger in America 2010, the most recent version of the study).
It's an extraordinary and daunting undertaking: tens of thousands of agency interviews done online for the first time and tens of thousands of client interviews to be completed in approximately 20 weeks across the U.S. This is a formidable research project under any scenario, but especially in our case, since it is executed with volunteer researchers and coordinated by food bank staff that must also focus on continuing to provide services to meet a persistently high level of need.
So why is it so important for the food banking network to invest significant resources into Hunger in America 2014 and why is the level of effort that will be needed even greater than in the past?
Simply put, the food banking network has grown tremendously, both in numbers of clients served and in the breadth and complexity of services. After several food banks expressed concern about their local reports, an analysis of the 2010 results by sampling experts showed that the number of agencies visited in the last study were probably well under what they should have been, given the growth and diversity of the network. This was particularly problematic for the quality of data in local food bank reports, which is the primary motivation for many food banks to participate. Because clients across agencies are often quite different, failing to get a sufficiently large sample of agencies makes it very difficult to get a real picture of what is happening in the charitable feeding network.
The risks of inadequate information might be less concerning if there were other data sources we could turn to in order to document the size and reach of charitable feeding. Unfortunately, there are none. Yes, the USDA Household Food Security report, which draws on Current Population Survey data, does ask respondents if they use charitable feeding sites. But the resulting estimates have consistently fallen far below what our own data show and the USDA has acknowledged that the estimates are likely understated. So if we relied on this report to tell our story, we would not have a very compelling case for the enormous growth in services all food banks have witnessed on the ground. What about other national studies? There are none. Even the large longitudinal studies that researchers use to study federal nutrition programs and the life course of low-income families don't cover charitable feeding use. So what about agencies themselves? Shouldn't we invest in collecting better agency-level data on a regular basis instead of pulling out all the stops every four years? The short answer to that question is yes — we clearly need to improve the consistency and quality of the data on clients served — donors, policymakers, and the public expect that social service enterprises can say how many people they serve and something about their circumstances as the most basic form of evidence about good stewardship. But improving routine administrative data across agencies is a long-term investment for the network and one that, while essential, is unlikely to completely erase the need for some type of additional research, since the challenge of unduplicating clients across agencies persists in even the best reporting environments.
Without a credible Hunger Study, there is no voice to explain to what extent and for whom the need in the charitable feeding sector exploded during the recession. That voice is more critical than ever, as the environment for protecting federal nutrition programs, including TEFAP and SNAP, is precarious. Lawmakers are not interested in how many pounds we move, but in how many people we serve. Those who wish to cut SNAP will assume that charitable feeding will pick up the slack, and without solid data, we can't demonstrate who the charitable feeding system is already struggling to serve, even in this era of unprecedented levels of SNAP enrollment. And no one else can tell the story of how many Americans already combine charitable feeding and SNAP or other federal programs in order to make ends meet. Moreover, no other data source outside of the Hunger Study can help us understand and explain how "emergency feeding" is increasingly a source of supplemental feeding for millions of Americans.
As the economy improves, the public will assume that lines are decreasing and that our role will revert to one of a crisis safety net. Facts on the ground suggest otherwise, but anecdotes and compelling client stories won't be enough to explain the complex role that charitable grocery and meal programs play in the lives of so many on a regular basis. In addition, there are few other opportunities to help dispel the many disparaging images of the poor and near-poor, including those who rely on SNAP and those who continue to struggle as the economy emerges from recession. Because we collect data on the real tradeoffs that people make on a regular basis and the challenges their households face, we can put a realistic face on the "growth curve" that so many critics of federal nutrition programs like to feature as the center of their arguments.
What else can the Hunger Study accomplish? It's not just a few headline numbers, although those are critical for all food banks and for the national network. Digging into the data has helped us learn a great deal about our clients' lives - information that has led directly to new resources and more effective responses to food insecurity. For example, HIA 2010 showed us a significant rise in Latino families in the FA network. A deeper analysis of that data undertaken with the Urban Institute highlighted the issues faced by Latino families with children and sparked funding for the Latino SNAP Outreach pilot sites. In 2012, we released a detailed analysis of utilization patterns reported by clients who participated in the 2010 Hunger Study, and for the first time, could illuminate the recurrent patterns of visits among a majority of clients. These data were a compelling part of the case made to hold the line on TEFAP and have opened conversations with new prospective donors who are intrigued by the regular reach we have into the low-income population.
But how good a study do we really have to have? Given that we are the only ones who will put forward the story, and that the environment around SNAP and the challenges of the poor has become very negative, it needs to be effective. Having a defensible, consistent methodology helps ensure that our data are taken seriously in Washington DC, and by donors, and the public. It is also important that food banks get better local results that they can use in their own service areas, both for planning and for fundraising and advocacy. Map the Meal Gap data has taken us a long way in being able to describe the level of need more accurately at the local level — the Hunger Study is our response to the question of what we are doing about the need.
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