Acadiana has a hunger problem — here’s the data

Cans of food sit in cardboard boxes.
Canned goods wait to be unloaded by members of the Saint Thomas More football team during CanStruction, their annual food drive, at the FoodNet Food Bank on Saturday, September 9, 2023, in Lafayette. Over 20,000 items were donated for the 13th annual canned food drive which benefits FoodNet Food Bank, a program of Catholic Charities of Acadiana. Brad Bowie/The Acadiana Advocate

For many women in Acadiana, one health issue is front and center: hunger. 

At a recent meeting convened by local community group Women of Wisdom, locals peppered Dr. Torrie Harris, secretary of the state Office of Women’s Health and Community Health, about a recent controversy. 

What can be done, they asked, about Louisiana’s decision not to accept $71 million in expanded federal food aid through the P-EBT program launched near the beginning of the pandemic. 

“What influence does your office have when it comes to expanding the summertime feeding program for children?” one woman asked. “I’m just wondering what you can bring to bear, what the people here can bring to bear, to reverse that.”

Harris, while emphasizing that it was not her decision to make, conceded to their concerns. 

“I’m not over that. We would have it,” Harris said. “Unfortunately, the Department of Children and Family Services did deny access to that federal funding.” 

During her appearance, Harris presented data collected in roundtable discussions and surveys across the state, which found that food insecurity was top of mind for women in Acadiana. 

“In terms of personal wellbeing, lack of food, lack of affordable food, was an issue,” Harris said, noting that roughly half of respondents considered this to be a top-line issue.

Food assistance data corroborates the feedback collected by Harris’ office, a unit of the Louisiana Department of Health created in 2022 to address women’s health issues. 

How common is food insecurity in Lafayette?

Over a fifth of all Acadiana residents, 21.2%, received benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program in 2022 — second only to the Monroe region. 

For comparison, in the Thibodaux and Lake Charles regions, around 15% of residents were signed up for those benefits. In New Orleans and Baton Rouge, 18% of the population received SNAP benefits that year.

In 2022, the most recent year for which this data is available, DCFS distributed an average of $33 million to 134,470 Acadiana residents, or roughly $245 per person, each month. Funding for the program comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while Louisiana pays half of the program’s administrative costs. 

SNAP provides cash assistance through an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, the modern equivalent of food stamps, which can be used like a debit card to buy groceries. Alcohol or tobacco, non-food products like paper towels, or hot food items are ineligible purchases.

There are different categories of eligibility based on income and household size. For example, a household of four qualifies if its before tax income is $39,000 or below. 

How much assistance a household receives also depends on its size. A family of four can receive up to $973 each month, an amount that has steadily increased in recent years to keep up with inflation. 

SNAP is Louisiana’s largest food assistance program, but its administration has been riddled with issues. A state audit found that errors in processing recipients’ cases, including determining their eligibility, had increased significantly in recent years. A prior lawsuit by the federal government accused the state of artificially deflating its error rates in the past. It was settled in 2020, with the state agreeing to pay $3.9 million to the federal government.

What happened to Summer P-EBT?

During the pandemic, the federal government offered additional funds to help families buy food while their children couldn’t take advantage of free or reduced-price meals at school, either because of quarantine requirements or during summer break.

Last year, DCFS projected it would distribute an additional $112 million in food assistance to families through the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer programs. Over the summer, the department projected that it would pay out $66.5 million in Summer P-EBT benefits to families, at a total of $120 per eligible child for the months of June and July. The department didn’t release final figures on the assistance it actually distributed.

Unlike SNAP, families didn’t necessarily have to provide income documentation to qualify. Children who were enrolled in a school in a low-income area or district automatically qualified, opening up assistance to households whose income was too high to qualify for SNAP, but whom advocates say could nevertheless use the help. 

Those schools provide breakfast and lunch at no cost to all students, meaning families would face increased food costs in the summer regardless of whether they themselves would have qualified for free or reduced lunches during the school year. Across Acadiana’s seven parishes, 160 public schools fell into this category.

Losing those benefits in 2024 has caused concern among food security advocates and charitable organizations feeding low-income families.

Help is available, but the need is greater

Many people who qualify for SNAP can also receive benefits for assistance programs not specifically limited to food. 

The federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program also provides cash assistance, which can be spent on food, to Louisiana families by way of two programs administered by DCFS, Family Independence Temporary Assistance and the Kinship Care Subsidy Program.

These programs come with far more specific eligibility requirements than SNAP and are distributed at a much smaller scale as a result. 

In 2022, an average of 878 Acadiana residents received FITAP benefits each month, at an average amount of $147 per recipient per month. An average of 480 Acadiana families received KCSP benefits every month in 2022, at $450 per eligible child.  

And there are several other food assistance programs targeted at specific age groups, such as food assistance for seniors, but food insecurity remains a pressing issue in Acadiana, social service groups say. 

In addition to assistance programs, charitable organizations provide tens of thousands of meals, grocery bags and food items every month. Catholic Charities delivers 25,000 meals and 3,000 food bags each month through its soup kitchen and food bank. Second Harvest serves upwards of 20,000 in Acadiana each month.

“Food insecurity is a huge problem,” said Marissa Winters, who oversees health initiatives and community programming for United Way of Acadiana. “Being able to purchase and afford groceries is a huge deal.”

Winters said she is particularly concerned about so-called ALICE households (asset limited, income constrained, employed) — working families who still struggle to afford basic necessities like food and shelter, but whose income exceeds the eligibility requirements for benefit programs like SNAP.

Because of its school-based qualification method, Summer P-EBT helped some of those households, who are now left with no assistance. 

“It was not a lot, but it did help,” Winters said. “I can’t even imagine what parents are going to do if there’s not a summer feeding program.” The Lafayette Parish School District is yet to announce plans for on-campus feeding programs this summer.