An Agenda for Fighting Hunger in Our Communities Year-Round

As the school year winds down, millions of children across our nation are thinking about their summers and eagerly anticipating the last bell. Yet, for many low-income families, the end of the school year also means the end of access to school lunch and breakfast programs. In a nation where almost 16 million children live in households that are food-insecure, this is not inconsequential. We cannot consign these children to a summer of hunger and expect them to come back to school in the fall ready to learn.

Hunger is a daily reality for millions of Americans, including far too many children, and has negative consequences for individuals of all ages. However, it is especially harmful for the development and well-being of children. Inadequate nutrition can permanently alter a child's development. As policymakers, those facts ought to make us wary of making ill-advised and temporary policy changes that may have lifelong impacts.

In 2012, 49 million people lived in food-insecure households, including 15.9 million children. "Food insecurity" is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as families or individuals who have limited, inadequate or uncertain access to food at points throughout the year due to a lack of money and other resources. Feeding America's "Map the Meal Gap" report took a more in-depth look into the issue and found counties in our nation where the child food insecurity rate is as high as 41 percent! In Wisconsin, over 270,000 children (one in five) struggle with hunger, with over 50,000 kids in Milwaukee County alone estimated to be food-insecure.

Our school breakfast and lunch programs are essential tools in the fight to end childhood hunger. These programs help ensure that students' nutritional needs are met so they can be better prepared to succeed in school. But what happens to these kids during the summer months? Many are unaware that we also offer federal summer meals programs for these children, so their nutritional needs are met year-round. Sadly, summer meals program participation lags drastically behind participation in lunch and breakfast programs during the school year. According to the USDA, while 21 million kids receive free or reduced school meals during the school year, only 3.4 million of these kids get meals through the summer meals program once school lets out. The result is increased hunger and hardships for families and children who have already been identified as lacking sufficient resources to maintain consistent access to healthy meals. While there are a number of factors that contribute to this disparity -- for example transportation issues that prevent kids from getting to meal locations -- stronger outreach efforts by the USDA and others that boosted the number of summer meals served last summer show we can make a difference.

But that same determination can help us fight hunger year round. Consider how big of a difference we can make by implementing just the four steps below:

(1) Increase participation in the summer meals programs. USDA should be applauded for setting a goal this summer to have 10 million more summer meals served, but it won't get there alone. I recently supported a request by a local group for a USDA waiver to allow for the use of mobile delivery in the summer meals program to help feed more kids in Milwaukee. We should all be searching for innovative solutions to connect children with the meals they need, year-round.

(2) Oppose continued attacks on programs that help combat hunger such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). It is nothing short of shameful that House Republicans continue to look for ways to roll back federal programs that help put food on the table for children and their families. For example, the House Republican budget passed this Spring would cut $137 billion (18 percent!) from SNAP over the next ten years. We must continue to oppose policies that only worsen hunger in our communities.

(3) Keep science-based nutrition standards. House Republicans are also targeting new federal nutrition requirements for the healthier school meals that Congress authorized in 2010. Overall, these standards call for more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less sugar, salt and fat. The House Appropriations Committee approved, by a partisan vote, a Department of Agriculture funding bill that would allow school districts to opt out of these new nutrition standards. This is clearly a step backwards. USDA has and continues to provide help to school districts that are having difficulty meeting nutrition standards and has responded with greater flexibility when made aware that particular standards are more challenging to implement. It was never going to be "easy" to phase in healthier meals, but our kids' health is too important for us to allow such a sweeping waiver of the requirements.

(4) Urge eligible school districts to implement the Community Eligibility provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Under this option, schools with significant numbers of students that qualify for free or reduced price school breakfast and lunches (because they participate in SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or other programs) can provide free meals to all students without the need for an individual application. For the first time, over 28,000 schools nationwide are now eligible to use this option, which has been found to increase participation in school breakfast and lunch programs, reduce administrative burdens and decrease the stigma that can keep many kids from eating. This is a tremendous, new opportunity to fight hunger among children in our communities.

These four steps are just a handful of ways to help protect our kids from hunger now. We can and must pursue public policies that will get us closer to ending hunger, especially among our children. A healthy and well-nourished student population is critical to our nation's long term success and well-being. Let's work to put food on the table for our hungry kids--because having adequate, nutritious food should never be a luxury.