Last year, one in seven Americans lived in a household that was food insecure. Hunger affects all who are touched by it, but is especially impactful on children. With 15 million children facing hunger, our nation is failing miserably on this front.
September is Hunger Action Month, a national campaign spearheaded by Feeding America that seeks to raise awareness and resources—both funds and volunteers—to address that failure. Part of its advocacy includes supporting legislation that fills the gaps, including the Child Nutrition Act, which must be reauthorized at the end of this month. As we all take time this month to raise awareness of food scarcity, which is a reproductive justice issue, we should also follow in Feeding America’s steps by contacting our legislators to let them know the funding levels for federal school meal and child nutrition programs need to be adequate. Giving families that help allows parents to focus on other needs (like their own ability to eat) and care for their kids.
Any movement concerned with supporting parents, family, and children must consider the effects of widespread hunger in the world’s richest country. Poverty and hunger have a number of complicated causes, but if we can find $609 billion in a $3.8 trillion federal budget to wage war overseas, certainly we could do more to prioritize the basic needs of our friends and neighbors. Helping 49 million hungry Americans is a problem too large for personal charity to handle; pooling our resources for big problems and causes is what we rely on the government for.
The reproductive justice framework makes it clear that the ability to parent in a safe and healthy environment is a basic human right. But if a parent is unable to exercise that right due to “food deserts” or federal budget cuts (as families are forced to choose between health care and groceries), our children suffer. Children do not get a second chance at development and laying a foundation for their lifelong economic security, nutrition, and health.
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The need of the one in five children living in poverty with the stress that comes with not being able to take their next meal for granted is up for debate in Congress. The National School Breakfast, Lunch, and After School programs, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Food Service Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and others that fall under the Child Nutrition Act are reviewed every five years. Though the programs are permanently authorized, the regular assessment of how they are administered and funded determines whether the help delivered to the 21.3 percent of children the USDA estimates live with food insecurity is adequate.
Food insecure households, according to the USDA, are defined as “those that are not able to afford an adequate diet at all times in the past 12 months.”
The current Child Nutrition Act expires at the end of this month and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry has postponed its mark-up—originally slated for last week—for the reauthorization bill. This is where amendments are added and bipartisan legislation takes the form that will be up for a vote. The parallel responsibility for hammering out funding for the programs under the Child Nutrition Act belongs to the Senate Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. According to an alert from the Food Research and Action Center on September 15, Hill staff expect a two-week delay—putting the meeting on reauthorization beyond the expiration date.
Advocates, governors, mayors, and school officials around the country are pushing for not just reauthorization, but more adequate resources. The Urban School Food Alliance, a group of six of the nation’s largest school districts, met in Chicago this summer; its recommendation is to raise the per meal allowance for the school lunch program 50 cents, which could help cover the costs of additional healthy food options. The districts have watched the effects of hunger on the three million students they oversee who rely on subsidized meals, and are clear that the status quo is falling short of meeting the need.
Providing nutrition and cutting down on hunger pains isn’t just about making it possible for kids to pay attention in school. Research from Children’s HealthWatch—a nonpartisan network of pediatricians, public health researchers, and children’s health and policy experts—indicates “strong connections between food security in early childhood and the development of skills crucial for school success including memory, emotional stability, and social skills.” The effects of early childhood hunger and the stress of insecurity last through the teen years and into adulthood, creating obstacles to education and skill development that can cause lifelong economic hardship.
Of course, benefiting the individual wasn’t the original motivation behind federal programs to reduce child hunger. President Harry S. Truman caught wind of the number of military recruits turned away during WWII because of malnutrition and in 1946 signed the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which created the National School Lunch Program. Truman considered it “a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.” It took another 20 years for President Lyndon Johnson to expand services to include breakfast as well by signing the Child Nutrition Act. By 1968, most federal programs addressing childhood hunger had been absorbed by the Child Nutrition Act, amplifying the importance of its full reauthorization.
The military roots are hardly concealed. Current U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke about the importance of reauthorization at a Center for American Progress event this month.
“Military leaders have expressed concern that not enough young adults will be physically fit enough to serve the country,” said Vilsack. “Children who don’t get enough food are more likely to struggle academically and have trouble finding a good-paying job.”
In addition to voting on reauthorization, a handful of bills to increase resources have been introduced in both houses of Congress. Topping the priority list of national nonprofit organization the Food Research and Action Center are “The Summer Meals Act of 2015” (S. 613, H.R. 1728), “The Stop Summer Hunger Act of 2015” (S. 1539, H.R. 2715), and “The Access to Healthy Food for Young Children Act of 2015” (S. 1833). Together the legislation would expand eligibility, funding, and logistical support for child nutrition. Enrollment paperwork would be streamlined and funds for innovations, such as transportation grants for mobile meal trucks, and placing electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards directly in student hands, could go a long way to boosting the effectiveness of programs.
Because childhood hunger affects lifetime economic productivity and has roots in military preparedness, bolstering services from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to School Lunches should have widespread bipartisan support. Unfortunately this isn’t necessarily true; Republican legislators across the country at the state and federal level have sought to implement burdensome restrictions and even bragged about cuts they didn’t impose.
The only way to counter this trend of ideological backsliding is public awareness and engagement. While that advocacy is always important, election season—especially while presidential primaries highlight national priorities—is the perfect time to amplify issues like poverty and hunger. Luckily, Feeding America makes contacting your legislators in support of adequate resources simple during Hunger Action Month and every month. They’re a top-rated charity whose food bank network extends into every corner of the country and is always in need of new volunteers. Helping the 49 million hungry Americans, including those who are children, parents, and caregivers, is as easy as taking a “Spoontember” selfie to raise awareness.
The #CNR2015 hashtag also makes it easy to track updates on the full set of legislation that groups like Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center are backing.