‘Food insecure’ families facing tough decisions

Thousands who don’t meet income limits juggle bills, feeding themselves

CLAIRTON — Avoid brand names. Look for sales, daily. For sandwiches, if there’s cheese, just one slice — and careful with the lunch meat. Not too much milk. Make a pot of spaghetti and hope it lasts you a week.

For some families, these might be optional guidelines for saving money. For the Breegle family in Clairton, these rules are a matter of survival.

On the surface, Elizabeth Breegle and her two children, a 12-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, might seem eligible for SNAP benefits since the monthly paycheck is $452 below the gross income limits for food stamps. But the family doesn’t qualify for aid because it doesn’t meet another important qualification: the net income limit, a calculation of the gross income minus eligible deductions like rent and heating costs.

That puts them in a no man’s land: They don’t qualify for SNAP but still are food insecure — lacking reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. The USDA estimates that 12.3 percent of households and 41 million people nationwide, were food insecure as of 2016. That percentage is higher in Allegheny County, where an estimated 168,000 individuals were food insecure in 2016 –13.7 percent of individuals overall and 16.8 percent of children, according to Feeding America.

“It’s a choice to pay the utilities or buy food to feed you and your children,” said Breegle, 45, who rents a house in Clairton.

“I would have to decide which month, which utility is getting paid so I can feed the kids,” she said. “It comes to a point sometimes where you only pay the ones that you have a shut-off notice on and let the other ones go for a while.”

Breegle still fits within the eligibility cutoffs to receive some federally funded food pantry resources — but many food insecure people don’t. Nationally, a little more than a quarter of food-insecure individuals are ineligible for federal nutritional assistance, but that percentage is even higher in Allegheny County. In 2016, an estimated 44 percent of food insecure county residents, including 39 percent of children, were above 185 percent of the federal poverty level and thus ineligible for federal nutritional assistance, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit with a network of more than 200 food banks and an annual food insecurity report called “Map the Meal Gap.”

“People get into a Catch-22 situation,” said Donna Little, the executive director of the Rainbow Kitchen Community Services, a Home­stead organization com­mitted to fighting hunger. “At the income they’re at right now, and if they were to make a little bit more money, then they wouldn’t be eligible for SNAP.”

Breegle can’t switch jobs because she doesn’t have one.

Her $2,271 in monthly income comes from Social Security survivors benefits from her husband’s unexpected death from a heart attack two years ago — on her daughter’s 12th birthday and the day before his own birthday. Five months later, she said her family lost SNAP benefits, which amounted to about $630 before her husband’s death and a little more than $500 once he died.

Because of her Meniere’s disease, which causes severe vertigo and fluctuating hearing loss, Breegle has not been able to work since 2012, when she repeatedly blacked out at her job at Walmart. After being denied federal disability benefits twice, she’s in the process of reapplying again as she recovers from spinal surgery in May to correct her crushed vertebrae.

Even routine payments become difficult, she said: paying monthly car insurance, buying gas, plus inspections. A few months ago, her car brake systems went out, which cost about $200.

“We went without milk for like two weeks. There was no lunch meat. Sometimes there was no bread in the house,” she said. “My son when he’s hungry, if there’s not much here, he will just eat canned fruit … It’s not a regular meal, but at least he’s eating something.”

According to USDA guidelines, to qualify for SNAP, a family’s gross monthly income must lie below 130 percent of the federal poverty level (currently, $2,665 per month for a family of four) which increases with household size, and special guidelines apply if household members are disabled or elderly. Additionally, a household’s net income must equal the federal poverty level, which is currently $2,050 per month for a family of four.

Many states, however, opt for “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which allows households to qualify for SNAP if they meet the requirements for a non-cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or State Maintenance of Effort funded benefit, often referred to as welfare. In Pennsylvania, the SNAP gross income threshold is 160 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $3,280 per month for a family of four.

Some federal nutritional aid programs directly target at-risk groups, such as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, informally called the “Senior Box Program” with 130 percent FPL limits, and the Women, Infants, and Children program with 185 percent FPL limits — but Breegle and her family don’t qualify for these programs. However, during the school year, her children qualify for free lunch.

“In the summer, my kids will eat a lot of ramen noodles. They eat that daily because it’s cheap,” said Breegle, who also deals with anxiety and depression issues on top of her mounting financial and health concerns.

For extra food assistance, Breegle goes to Rainbow Kitchen on the second Wednesday of each month for items such as milk, bread, eggs and cereal.

Rainbow Kitchen, like many local food pantries and soup kitchens, receives resources from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, which distributes food to nearly 400 member agencies in 11 southwestern Pennsylvania counties.

TEFAP funding sources can often determine the income guidelines for food pantries. Member agencies receiving TEFAP resources must have families fill out a self-declaration form to certify that their income is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, a guideline set by Pennsylvania.

If a hungry person is ineligible for food assistance, Rainbow Kitchen, like many area food pantries “would not turn someone away” and instead offers food through other funding sources, such as private donations, according to Donna Little, executive director of Rainbow Kitchen.

However, for the 34.7 million families nationwide that United Way has dubbed ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, and employed) individuals struggling to make ends meet, many of these “working poor” can’t be found at a food pantry — often because of the associated stigma, according to Leah Lizarondo, CEO and co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that provides a network of nonprofits with unsellable but viable healthy food from local food providers. Lack of transportation also can limit access.

Lizarondo stressed the importance of “untraditional food networks” in providing food access.

“We catch them at places where they still access services, such as subsidized day care centers,” she said. “The reason why it’s important for us to work with these centers: We want the parents to not only pick up their kid, but also pick up a bag of groceries, no questions asked.”

Sometimes having SNAP isn’t even a firm guarantee to receive assistance.

Passed June 21, the 2018 House Farm Bill, which includes a controversial work requirement for able-bodied adult SNAP recipients, could reduce or eliminate SNAP benefits for more than 1 million low income households with more than 2 million people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In an official statement, the White House criticized the Senate bill, passed June 26, for not including the work requirement and because it “fails to close eligibility loopholes and target benefits to the neediest households.”

Soon, lawmakers will need to reconcile House and Senate versions of the five-year, $867 billion legislation, with pressure to act before current farm programs begin to expire on Sept. 30.

Starting in late August, for $12 per hour, Breegle will work at her children’s charter school, which has agreed to accommodate her Meniere’s disease, so her food struggle won’t be quite as dire.

However, if the farm bill passes with SNAP eligibility changes, hundreds of thousands of families might find themselves in the same position she is now: cut off from federal aid but still struggling to make ends meet.