Santos Amigon was 7 years old when he joined the California foster care system. Then he spent most of his time until he reached 18 in group homes with other foster youngsters.
Amigon, now 25, has been couch surfing for years and thinks being able to purchase food and understanding how to make it are two ways the foster system failed him.
Now they say, ‘Figure it out on your own,’” Amigon says. No idea how to get my driver’s license, fix a tire on my automobile, or buy groceries.
Even though he has managed to secure warehouse work and enroll in CalFresh, California’s version of SNAP, his monthly ratio is insufficient.
He’s gotten hot food from a grocery store counter and shoved it into his bag. “I hate stealing,” he says. “But I’ve been hungry.”
Not only Amigon. According to the National Foster Adolescents Institute (NFYI), where he is now an intern, 33% of former foster youth in California reported food insecurity.
Based on Medicaid-funded program enrollments that reflect widespread financial insecurity, the Center for the Study of Social Policy believes that this number could be significantly higher nationwide.
Every year, 23,000 American teenagers leave the foster care system. Whether they’re 18 or a few years older in states with prolonged programs, they’re not taught how to care for themselves as “adults.”
“Training wheels” are needed, says Jacqueline Burbank, NYFI’s director of communications.
So, how would such a safety provision look?
Foster Food Insecurity
Poverty is the source of food insecurity. College students may be food insecure after buying books and supplies, whereas the elderly may be food insecure after retirement due to a drop in income.
Most foster children come from low-income Black, brown, or Indigenous families.
Kids removed from their own homes may be living with foster families (including “kinship” caregivers like grandparents) whose earnings are below the federal poverty line, making them exposed to food insecurity.
Foster kids may also relocate multiple times. “Their homes, caregivers, rules, mealtimes, and meals change,” Burbank adds. “Food access may be inconsistent.”
Youth in foster care are more likely to be homeless, involved in the criminal justice system, have poor rates of high school and college graduation, and have earnings below the poverty line.
They are “disproportionately drawn from poor homes. And we usually stay poor,” says Burbank, who grew up in kinship care. The fact that she had access to CalFresh and a computer to search for food pantries made her feel privileged.
So the story goes full circle—from poverty to poverty and how it fosters and sustains food insecurity.
Home Base Absent
Having a physical home base may help alleviate food insecurity. An adolescent living in her car or on friends’ couches can’t shop or cook.
The USDA offers temporary waivers to allow states to allow SNAP participants to buy hot food instead of groceries.
College can give some stability for those who get there. But, according to Mauriello Amichi, a social scientist who studies former foster youngsters, 6 in 10 enroll in community colleges, which rarely provide accommodation.
Even if they do, Amichi says, “housing instability is a really complex issue for these students.”
Their former foster parents’ homes are no longer available for Christmas visits, and without family assistance, “they wind up sleeping in their cars.”
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, this scenario became all too typical.
Colleges must “take a critical approach to fulfill all of the students’ needs beyond merely providing instruction,” adds Amichi.
We must ensure that students do not have to pick between class and labor to put food on the table.
Identifying foster care students on college campuses is as simple as adding a question to a student survey, then reaching out to ensure they’re receiving all financial aid they’re eligible for.
Former foster youth, up to the age of 26, can use $5,000 in federally supported Chafee Education and Training Vouchers to pay for post-secondary education.
States may contribute to education. For example, the Educational Opportunity Program in California provides financial and other assistance to poor students, including those who have been in foster care.
Providing lodging for students during vacations and summers is also critical. Amichi believes community institutions should contact nearby four-year universities and say,
“We have 25 students who need lodging for winter break.” Is there any way we can help your institution?”
To alleviate food insecurity among former foster youngsters, some experts suggest boosting monthly SNAP benefits to reflect actual grocery costs, so users like Amigon don’t have to turn to desperate measures.
However, former foster youth face additional SNAP hurdles. The Time Limit for Able-Body Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs).
A single, healthy person aged 18 to 49 who does not work at least 80 hours per month is only eligible for three months of SNAP benefits every three years.
According to the CSSP report’s authors, “this is a very punitive punishment for adolescents aging out of foster care,” given their high unemployment rates (only 35% employed by age 24) and lower salaries than their peers.
Supports for youth generally ceased at age 18, but many federal services and benefits for adults were created for older people or parents, the research says, exacerbating the problem.
During the epidemic, the USDA granted states ABAWD exceptions; CSSP and other groups want former foster adolescents up to age 26 permanently exempted.
Mentorship that includes advice on qualifying for SNAP and other assistance would also help young adults transition to independence.
“Someone who can relate and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, this is what worked for me, and this is what didn’t,” adds Amigon.
Burbank says aging out foster youngsters need a caseworker to assist them to adjust to independence.
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Both Burbank and Amigon want to see more emphasis on life skills programs that enable foster youngsters to feed themselves.
“Someone should take you to the grocery and show you the real cost of food. “Three square meals a day isn’t always realistic,” Amigon explains.
This kind of skill-building isn’t currently happening within the system, says Erika Shira, a private clinician who has worked with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and has been a foster parent.
“We’re growing a generation that doesn’t know how to cook,” says Burbank.
A town where people are jumping off a cliff, so they park an ambulance at the bottom, compares the foster care system to Shira.
A major sociological and policy issue, Shira says, is the US approach to aging out of foster care.
Both Shira and Burbank believe that every state should have extended care, which is now only available in 26 states plus Washington, D.C. Or, better still, start from the beginning by keeping kids with their parents or returning them as soon as feasible.
However, there are regrettable complications to reunifying parents and children. Burbank claims the method helps parents with mental health issues and substance abuse.
Some forms of “neglect,” including lack of frequent food or shelter, are due to a family’s financial situation, she says.
“We take their children away from them because they are impoverished, and give them to other families who may not be able to care for them. Where does it end? Just give them cash.”