Incarceration and Food Insecurity

Incarceration and Food Insecurity

Ex-Offenders Face Systemic Barriers to Reentering Society, Most are Food Insecure

By Amber Wright, Marketing

The incarceration rate in the United States is at its lowest since 1995, yet nearly 7 million  US citizens are incarcerated or under community control at any given time.

Roughly 600,000 people are released from prison every year and these barriers and inequities carry over not only for them and their families, but also the communities to which they return.

For this blog, we will look at the nutritional well-being among formerly incarcerated individuals. 91% of people beginning their transition out of imprisonment report not having regular access to nutritious food. Long after release, they still remain twice as likely to be food insecure. Reentering society presents several barriers to gaining meaningful employment, leading to high rates of food insecurity and ultimately higher rates of recidivism and healthcare expenditures.


Importance of Proper Nutrition

Inadequate nutrition has been linked to several consequences such as:

  • Obesity, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and deficits in brain function (CDC)
  • Worsening mood disorders like depression and anxiety (Harvard)
  • Hypertension and osteoporosis (USDA)
  • Hyperactivity, disciplinary problems, psychological problems, and criminal behavior (DOJ)
  • Increase of premature deaths

 

Stable access to healthy foods is crucial for both physical and mental well-being. Just as school children affected by hunger display poor performance and difficulty learning in school, adults suffer the same outcomes in the workplace.

If proper nutrition remains out of reach, it can be difficult to retain employability. Coupled with new or preexisting health conditions, this can generate avoidable healthcare expenses footed by the state.

Research reveals poor diets account for 20% of healthcare costs from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. That equates to about $50 billion that could have been avoided.

There are several factors unique to previously incarcerated individuals that hinder access to a sufficient diet.


Collateral Consequences

Sentences might end, but the consequences of incarceration do not. For those who are released each year, most find significant barriers to getting back on their feet. They struggle to find adequate housing, employment, and living wages. These necessities are crucial for individuals to successfully reenter society instead of returning to the system.

Legally sanctioned restrictions and disabilities resulting from a conviction are known as “collateral consequences.” More than 47,000 collateral consequences have been identified in state and federal law, barring formerly incarcerated people from rights normally granted to American citizens. These may negatively affect access to housing, employment, professional licensure, property rights, mobility and even access to public benefits.


Barriers to Housing

Federal law currently bars access to public housing for people with certain types of convictions and grants private landlords the ability to deny anyone with a criminal background. It is not surprising that a third of people released from prison wind up in homeless shelters. Even those who have been incarcerated only once are 7 times more likely to be homeless than the general populations. It is 13 times more likely for anyone incarcerated more than once, and even higher in both categories for people of color and women.

Legislation punishes homelessness even more by criminalizing things like sleeping in public spaces, panhandling and public urination, which entraps hordes of people in the cycle of poverty while increasing recidivism rates. Even if former inmates are lucky enough to secure housing, they often find themselves limited to low-income, redlined neighborhoods. This increases the likelihood of living in a food desert and raises the chance of food insecurity.


Barriers Employment

Several social and legal barriers make it just as difficult for returning citizens to find employment. The first time data was released on the subject in 2018 by the Prison Policy Initiative, it revealed that unemployment for those leaving incarceration was an astounding 27%. Not only is that 5 times higher than the general population, but it exceeds the rate of any economic crisis, including the Great Depression. More than half of people released from prison remain out of work for at least a year.

One study found that state and federal law restricted ex-offenders from obtaining licensing required for various forms of employment. It discovered more than 12,000 restrictions for individuals with any type of felony and more than 6,000 restrictions based on misdemeanors. Surveys suggest most private employers are unwilling to hire someone who has served a prison sentence and 87% of employers conduct background checks.

Social stigma may suggest that people reentering society are not looking for work, but recent analysis indicates otherwise. For people between the ages of 25-44, data listed 93.3% of ex-offenders were either employed or actively looking for work, while only 83.8% of the general population fell into the same category. Low employment rates are more related to the systemic barriers they face rather than a lack of desire to work. Like housing barriers, people of color and women are affected the most.


Barriers to Benefits

Barriers have also been put in place hindering access to public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

In 1996 federal law banned anyone with a felony drug conviction from receiving SNAP benefits. Since then, most states have either dropped the ban entirely or allowed assistance on the condition of regular drug testing and treatment. However, South Carolina still has the full ban in place.

The additional requirements put in place by states who have modified the ban not only accrue additional costs for the state, but they add strain to the individuals in fulfilling them. Already having a harder time finding employment, they must now limit their availability to make regular appointments.

When accessible, public benefits improve the health of recipients as well as cut costs in other areas. For example, SNAP has shown to reduce healthcare costs while improving the overall health of recipients and reducing food insecurity by 30%. At the same time, studies for even the modified ban on access to these benefits proved to increase recidivism instead.


Why This Matters

It’s not difficult to see how all these factors lead to food insecurity. If someone is unable to find housing or employment, it’s unlikely they will have regular access to healthy foods. Poor nutrition escalates physical and mental health conditions, decreasing employability and overall quality of life. Under these conditions, it is no surprise that both recidivism and poverty rates remain high.

It has been estimated that between 1980 and 2004 overall poverty in America would have dropped 20% if not for mass incarceration.

Poor nutrition exacerbates behavioral issues and aggression. When people have served their sentence, they continue to be punished with collateral consequences and social stigma, resulting in barriers to housing and employment. This increases recidivism and decreases social productivity for everyone.

Instead of funding being spent on public assistance and programs to help people reenter society (or avoid arrest completely,) it is often used to house those who are unable to overcome these challenges.

Reducing recidivism helps everyone. It is essential that ex-offenders be granted the same accessibility to these basic needs to make it happen. More programs should be put in place not only for their benefit, but for that of their families and the overall well-being of society.

 


Food Insecurity in Women-Led Households

Food Insecurity in Women-Led Households

Female headed households were already more vulnerable to food insecurity, but Covid made it worse

By Amber Wright, Development and Marketing

Women have been fighting for equality since before Susan B. Anthony advocated for women’s rights. Our nation has made great strides with females winning the right to vote, gaining employment in greater numbers and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, which allowed women to legally own credit cards separate from their husband. However, lasting effects of gender inequality has left many women still experiencing disparities in areas such as poverty and food security.

National food insecurity rates were dropping during the years leading up to Covid, but that trend excluded certain groups such as woman-led families. After the pandemic made its devastating economic impact, they continue to experience higher rates of food insecurity than their peers. More than a quarter of women-led families currently struggle with hunger.

Women are more vulnerable to food insecurity if they have children, although women are more likely to live in poverty even without them. They suffer from greater unemployment during Covid, lower wages, extra childcare responsibilities, and disproportionate health consequences. While this holds true globally, for this blog we will focus on data from the United States.

A great deal of stigma has often plagued single mothers throughout history. Racially charged depictions of the “welfare queen,” along with pervading religious dogma, have contributed to this stigma. Ohio and several other states even considered forced sterilization of single women who had another child while on public assistance. Besides being archaic, this stereotype completely ignores half of single mothers who are divorced, separated, or widowed. It also fails to consider the number of women who are victims of trauma, fleeing physical abuse, or became pregnant because of sexual assault.

Households run by single mothers are the second most common family type in the U.S., accounting for 80.5% of all single-parent families and almost half of all low-income families. This group experiences poverty at more than double the rate of their male counterparts, with 23.4% of single mothers living in poverty compared to 11.4% of single fathers. The numbers are far worse compared to married couples with children, who sit around 5%.

Since food insecurity is driven by lack of income and other critical resources, it is important to look at the inequities regarding employment. In general, women now make 98 cents for every dollar a man makes working the same job. However, the average for single mothers is lower at 82 cents. Average pay is even less for single mothers that are Black (64 cents) or Latina/Hispanic (56 cents).

Our country’s recent recession is the first time unemployment has risen into the double digits for women since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting data by gender in 1948. Since the onset of the Covid economic crisis, women in general have suffered job loss at a higher rate (15.7% for women compared to 13.3% for men.) Once again, rates are higher for Black women (15.8%) and Latina/Hispanic women (19.8%).

This latest economic downturn more adversely effected the service industry, which is disproportionately staffed by women. Data shows women are twice as likely to work in low-wage, part-time jobs with few to no benefits. This leaves many of them lacking adequate health insurance and medical care. Of all groups, single mothers are most likely to lack coverage. It further jeopardizes their basic income if sick leave is not provided. It is also worth noting that unlike most of our peer countries, the U.S. does not grant new mothers paid leave.

Another contributing factor is closures of schools and child-care facilities. Women carry a higher burden of childcare responsibilities: 80.5% of all single-parent households are run by a mother alone. Of these households, only a third received any child support payments, which averaged only $286 a month. The average cost of childcare alone is $808/month in Ohio and a little more than $750/month nationally. However, many facilities shut down entirely during Covid, leaving many women out of options regardless of income or support. This forced a large number of women, especially single mothers, out of the workforce. While households with children who miss school due to Covid-19 receive P-EBT benefits, the parent is still responsible for grocery shopping and food preparation.

Children suffered higher rates of food insecurity after school closures. Not only can the family’s primary source of income be effected, but schools are no longer providing regular meals. The mother is now faced with lack of childcare and the burden of providing and preparing extra meals during the day.

Both mothers and children experience disparities in health conditions tied to food insecurity. Proper nutritional intake not only effects a child’s current health, but also their mental, physical, and social development. The USDA has stated children from food insecure homes are more likely to suffer adverse outcomes, such as chronic health conditions, slower progress while learning in school, and more difficulties with social development.

Women are more likely than men to experience weight gain or obesity while food insecure, but at the same time are less likely to consume more than 50% of the recommended energy intake compared to food-secure women. This is often linked to the consumption of cheap, calorie-rich food.

The mental health of women also declines as food insecurity increases. It is not surprising that people lacking regular access to nutritious food show higher rates of depression and other mental health disorders. In turn, this can further reduce the stability of regular employment.

Social Programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are proven to reduce food insecurity. Research has shown that food insecure mothers who receive the benefits display improvements in both mental and physical health. Women, Infants and Children (WIC) further helps mothers with young children access proper nutrition and overall better health, but the dollars do not stretch far. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the estimated national average of SNAP benefits only amounts to roughly $5.78 per day ($1.93 per meal.)

We have recognized several levels of disparities regarding food insecurity in women, particularly women of color. Continuing research has shown positive improvements in health and livelihood for food insecure women with help from various public benefit programs, but the support is not enough to close the gap. In the spirit of equity and advocacy, we suggest a call to action for legislatures to increase funding for these initiatives.


Food insecurity persists in rural America as economic recovery is slow to appear

Food insecurity persists in rural America as economic recovery is slow to appear

High unemployment, declining populations, and a lack of public transportation contribute to the rural-urban divide.

Written by: Emily Gallion, Grants & Advocacy Manager and Caitlyn McIntosh, Development Manager

In our cities, we see hunger every day. It looks like a huddle of people waiting for a pantry to open, or cracked hands holding a cardboard sign asking for money for food. It can even look like boards on the windows of a neighborhood’s last remaining grocery store.

Of the top 10 percent of US counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, 76 percent are rural. On average, 15 percent of households living in rural areas are food insecure, compared to 11.8 percent of people living in urban counties.

American economic recovery has made headlines recently: the national unemployment rate has dropped to 3.6% and the Dow Jones has reached record highs. However, economic growth has been patchy. While employment rates in metropolitan areas have surpassed pre-2008 levels, rural areas have not yet recovered.

While employment in metropolitan areas is 10 percent higher than it was in 2007, data from the Economic Research Service shows non metro areas still have not reached pre-recession levels.

The Foodbank serves three counties: Montgomery, Greene, and Preble. Montgomery County is considered an urban (or metropolitan) county. Preble County is a designated rural county. Greene County contains a mix of urban clusters and rural areas, and as a result is often categorized as a suburban or small-town county. Because rural-urban designations are made at the county level, overarching data can sometimes obscure the realities of the people who live in communities within them.

Within Preble county, 12% of adults and 18.8% of children are food insecure, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap. Households with children are more likely to experience food insecurity in general, but the trend is especially pronounced in rural communities.

A common theme when discussing rural hunger is the low population density and associated lack of resources. Rural areas have also seen population decreases as individuals move away- often termed “domestic migration.” While metropolitan areas experienced a population growth of over 6 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to American Community Survey data, the most rural areas saw decreases of almost 2 percent, which contributes to the ability of local businesses to remain open.

As a result of these population trends, in addition to difficulty affording food, people who are living in poverty in non-metropolitan areas often report challenges accessing food as grocery stores struggle to remain open.

Data from the Economic Revenue Service shows trends of employment and population growth in rural and urban areas

According to The Ohio State University’s Center for Farmland Policy Innovation (CFPI), 24 percent of residents of rural Ohio have to drive at least 10 minutes to purchase food from a retailer — including convenience stores and other sellers that rarely provide an adequate selection of fresh food. Stores in this category that do sell fresh food have a reputation for doing so at inflated prices.

Additionally, not every household living within driving distance of a retail grocery store has the means to get to it. Of the households living within driving distance from a store, five percent do not own a car, and public transportation is extremely uncommon in non-metro areas.

For example, our clients living in Lewisburg must make the 11 minute drive to a grocery store in Brookville, or even 15 minutes to one in Eaton. However, if you do not have a car then you are left with options from the local convenience store in town, because there is no public transportation available.

Grocery stores are not the only resources that are sparse in rural counties. Nearly one million children living in Ohio’s rural counties live with no access to a pediatrician. This translates to one in three children who have to travel at least 40 minutes to the nearest provider. According to American Community Survey data, 152,000 Ohio children live in a home without a vehicle.

This is especially concerning given the impact food insecurity can have on children’s health. Children who are food insecure face increased rates of obesity, more frequent colds and stomach aches, behavioral health problems, and even developmental problems. Coupled with increased distances from healthcare providers, food insecurity is potentially dangerous for these children.

Knowing the impact food insecurity can have on the health of both children and adults, The Foodbank has taken steps in recent years to increase the availability of food in the rural areas we serve. While we are located in Dayton, we are constantly trying to expand our reach.

In fiscal year 2017, our pantries served a total of 5,056 clients in Preble county. At the close of our most recent fiscal year, we had increased that number to 11,151.

Another program we are using to meet this need is our Mobile Farmers Markets, which distribute fresh food directly in areas we identify as high need. We host four distributions in Preble County each month. This February, our mobiles served 1,157 people in Preble county alone.

For more information on our mobiles, come back for our next blog post about our Mobile Farmers Markets. Have suggestions for what posts you want to see in the future? Learn something cool today? Let us know in the comments below!