Jill Warren Lucas
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Across the country, schools have closed for summer break or soon will. Lunch rooms are closing, too, and students who depend on school meals for nutrition may not experience the carefree season that other classmates will enjoy.
Last summer, only 14 percent of children who were eligible to be served by summer feeding programs received those meals, according to WhyHunger, a nonprofit that aims to end hunger and poverty by supporting grassroots solutions that inspire self-reliance and community empowerment.
“Parents want to do the right thing for their children,” says Bill Ayres, who established the organization in 1975 with the late musician Harry Chapin. “They have the responsibilities, but not the resources. And many don’t realize they’re in trouble until schools close. By then, they’re really up the creek.”
Ayres notes that school feeding programs are essential to level the playground for children from low-income families. “It’s well known that nutrition aids cognition, but there’s a gap in the summer when too many children go hungry,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
The number of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) feeding sites has increased dramatically in recent years, with nearly 39,000 sites operating last summer. Ayres says there will never be enough to meet the growing need.
A promising solution to the logistical challenge of getting hungry children to feeding sites is at risk due to pending legislation that would cut $4 billion in funding to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Currently, 83 percent of SNAP families live below the poverty level, which is defined as $19,000 annual income for a family of three. The SNAP benefit provides $1.50 per meal per person.
WhyHunger supports expansion of a USDA pilot program that adds funds to a family’s SNAP card in the summer months to bring nutritious food to their own kitchen table. Ayres says the pilot program adds $60 a month during July and August, with a prorated amount provided in June depending on when local schools close.
“It’s easier and more efficient to give them more funds on their SNAP card, which adds enough money for breakfast – milk, bread, cereal,” Ayres says. “The results have been dramatic. The kids are coming back to school less hungry and more ready to learn.”
Instead of adding funds, however, the proposed farm bill would cut family SNAP allocations by about $90 a month. In From the Mouths of Babes, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman recently lauded the role of SNAP in providing assistance to recipients who truly need help, especially during the prolonged economic downturn. In addition to mitigating the misery of food insecurity, Krugman writes, money spent by at-risk families for food resources “actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue”:
“Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future – an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers.”
Babble Cares further notes that SNAP provides vital support to help farmers: “About 20 cents from every SNAP dollar goes to farmers, and with efforts underway to support food stamp use at farmers’ markets and farm stands, even more can go to the people who grow our food.”
Many states promote programs that encourage farmers to accept WIC vouchers, the supplemental food program dedicated to provide support for pregnant women, infants and children. This program also is at risk, however, due to a 5 percent cut caused by the government sequester.
Ayres says that some states are voluntarily doubling the $18 WIC benefit that can be used at farmer’s markets during the summer growing season. “That means they get $36 worth of fresh vegetables to feed their family,” he says, adding that some states offer similar benefits to senior citizens.
Such programs not only fill bellies but also build a sense of being invested in one’s community.
“All of these things are ways of addressing hunger, beating diabetes and helping small farmers,” Ayres says, stating that 95 percent of farm subsidies go to big agribusiness. “Those who grow vegetables and fruit, or raise dairy, to feed their local communities need all the support they can get.”
A national petition urging Congress to not slash the SNAP program’s budget has been organized by TakePart, an online advocacy news site. It is supported by several major organizations that work to end hunger in America, including Bread for the World, Feeding America, Food Research and Action Center, and No Kid Hungry.