Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Does 7.8% Mean in North Dakota?

Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap
See that largest light area on Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap?  That would be the state of North Dakota, which Feeding America estimates as having the lowest food insecurity rate in the nation – 7.8%.  This is a very low rate!  The next lowest is New Hampshire, with a rate of 10.0%, and the national average is 16.6%. 

What does a state look like that has the lowest food insecurity rate?  We went to North Dakota to find out.  We expected to find little need for food assistance.  Instead we found innovative state-wide programs facing special challenges in feeding hungry North Dakotans.

Melissa Sobolik,
Great Plains Food Bank
We began in Fargo, ND, where we interviewed Melissa Sobolik, Director of Member and Client Services at Great Plains Food Bank, the food bank that supplies all of North Dakota and one county of Minnesota with much of its emergency food, including TEFAP commodities.  Then we traveled to Bismarck, the state capital, and talked with Arlene Dura, Director of Food Assistance Programs (including SNAP) for the North Dakota Department of Human Services

We certainly heard about the challenges of reaching the population of North Dakota with services: North Dakota is largely rural, people here take great pride in their self-reliance, and currently, flooding is at disastrous levels.

The population of North Dakota is 672,591.  Only 2 states have fewer residents (Vermont and Wyoming).  About 39% of North Dakotans live in the 4 biggest cities, Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks, and Minot, but 2 whole counties have less than 800 residents each, and another 3 have populations between 800 and 2000.  Some people need to drive 60 miles just to get to the nearest grocery store or social service office.  The average distance clients drive to a food pantry is 48 miles. 

What techniques are being used to reach this far-flung populace?
Arlene Dura, North Dakota
Department of Human Services
Arlene told us that there are county social services offices in 51 of the 53 counties (those two very sparsely populated counties are combined with a neighbor), and at least 7 counties staff satellite offices to better reach those in need.  Several of these satellites are on the state’s 3 Indian reservations. 

The county offices make the application process as efficient as possible.  Each eligibility worker handles applications for all federal programs – SNAP, Medicaid, TANF, Child Care Assistance, Basic Care, and LIHEAP fuel assistance.  In August, North Dakota added an on-line application process, which saves a client at least one trip to the county office.  So far, they’ve received more than 2400 applications via computer.  Applications are automatically routed to the correct county office, and someone in that office must follow up within one day.  For expedited service (extreme need), applicants will have their benefits within 3 days, instead of the federally mandated 7 days.  In addition, in cases of hardship (such as disability or lack of transportation), social service workers can conduct a phone interview instead of a face-to-face interview. 

The Great Plains Food Bank is also specialized to supply programs and services to low-density rural areas.   For example, they will deliver to all pantries, not requiring any to come to their warehouse to pick up food.  In 16 areas without adequate food pantries, they run mobile food pantries.  They prepare 40-lb boxes of food, load about 800 boxes onto a semi, and go to a pre-arranged and advertised site.  Clients line up in their vehicles, and workers try to provide one box of food for each person in the household.  Melissa told us about one mobile food pantry where 500 cars were in line when the truck arrived, and 1400 people showed up.  They had to ration the food that day, and next quarter, they may send 2 semis out to that location.  At least 10 communities are on the waiting list for these mobile pantries.

The SNAP participation rate in North Dakota in 2008 was 67%.  How can more people actually receive the benefits to which they are entitled?  

Melissa told us about the Great Plains Food Bank’s new outreach efforts.  In partnership with the state, the food bank employs 3 SNAP outreach workers, who have visited every one of their 278 partner agencies to explain SNAP to those coming for service. These agencies include food pantries, senior programs, meal programs, and others. 

The outreach workers found that there are many barriers to participation in SNAP.  One of the main barriers is “Prairie Pride;” many North Dakotans choose not to admit that they are food insecure, preferring to just “make do.”   Other barriers are transportation, the distance to the social services office, and misconceptions about the programs (for example, that you can’t own a car, can’t have any assets, need to be fingerprinted, or shouldn’t take food assistance because someone else might need it more).  It often takes several low-key visits to establish a relationship with a potential client, explain the SNAP program, dispel these misconceptions, and pre-screen clients for eligibility.  Outreach workers then do whatever’s necessary to help clients apply, including sometimes visiting their homes, helping to determine what paperwork will be needed, and delivering paperwork to the social services office. 
North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck, ND

This year, North Dakota is experiencing an additional huge challenge – flooding, which is causing widespread damage in 3 major cities on 3 different rivers.  Minot had just been declared a federal disaster area and has been authorized for individual assistance to those affected.  

The response from the Department of Social Services was swift.  Plans were in place ahead of time so that the day after the official disaster declarations were made, the plans could be submitted to the regional USDA office.  The state used disaster overlay maps to identify all SNAP recipients affected by the flooding, and will give them an automatic replacement of their June SNAP grant, supplemented to the maximum amount allowed for their household size.  They are also ready to offer emergency SNAP benefits to anyone who lost their job because of the flooding, with a shorter application process, and taking into account the extra costs such as emergency housing, and granting an immediate interview. 

The Great Plains Food Bank is likewise implementing their disaster response plans, sending in extra food, as well as staffing an outreach office to help affected residents apply for SNAP benefits.  They’re working very closely with the social services office to coordinate these plans.

So, after our visit to North Dakota, what do we think accounts for the low reported rates of food insecurity there?

First, although North Dakotans are not rich (their 2008-9 level of poverty and median income place them close to the national average), their unemployment rate is by far the lowest in the nation at 3.2%.  Not only does this mean that more North Dakotans have regular income, but also that fewer are in the crisis adjustment stages of coping with job loss and learning to live on a lower budget.

Second, rates of food insecurity are partially determined by a US Census Bureau survey that asks questions about skipping meals, having too little money to afford balanced meals, and other things indicating that a household is at risk of hunger.  Answers to these questions might be slightly biased on the low side due to North Dakotans’ traditional reluctance to admit hardship.  They also are likely lower due to the fact that North Dakotans are blessed with an emergency food system that is highly tuned to meet their particular needs. 

(Acknowledgment:  Special thanks to Julia Brown at Feeding America, who helped us make sense of food insecurity measurement methods and what they mean.)

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