‘Let’s just feed our kids’: Advocates press to extend federal aid for school meals

In Wisconsin one out of every 11 people struggle with hunger, but the number is far higher for children

Adult (teacher or parent) eating school lunch with girl on trays in a classroom
Photo by Meal Makeover Moms via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 "School Lunch with Leah"

WASHINGTON — School nutrition leaders are calling on the federal government to extend a summer meals program to support hungry kids as schools reopen this fall. 

“One of our primary needs at this point is to try to maintain the summer food service,” Larry Wade Sr., director of school nutrition services for Chesapeake Public Schools, said at a virtual press conference held Monday by the National Press Club. “We believe that opportunity could make a big difference during the school year.”

The program is operating under temporary rules that allow parents to pick up multiple meals at a time, often at “grab-n-go” locations, without children at their side. 

The US Department of Agriculture is also allowing states to waive “open site” limitations during unanticipated school closures that only allow meal service to areas where at least half of the children live in low-income households. 

“To be able to provide meals across the board, whether it’s in a no-cost neighborhood or in a more affluent neighborhood, will really, really make a difference,” Wade said.

The USDA adopted a series of waivers in March to address hunger during the pandemic and support social distancing during meal pick-ups. The agency extended key waivers in May through the end of this month.

School lunchroom middle school
“middle school lunch room — sneak peek in the lunchroom with the sixth graders” Photo by woodleywonderworks CC BY 2.0

Continuing the summer program will “help accentuate our program and provide an opportunity for parents to know that we’re here to help,” Wade said. Doing so would also “take the load off” of parents, many of whom have been laid off as a result of nationwide shutdown orders.

Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, also pressed for an extension of USDA’s temporary waivers during the press conference, as well as for more food aid from the federal government. 

The USDA can extend the waivers “right now,” Duncan said. “They did it going into the summer,” he said. “They just need to do it again.”

Child hunger — especially amid a pandemic and a recession — should not be a partisan issue, he said. “Let’s just feed our kids. It’s not that hard.”

In Wisconsin one out of every 11 people struggles with hunger, but that number is higher for children. One out of every seven kids in our state goes hungry, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, as millions of parents and caregivers have been laid off and lost income amid national shutdown orders. Children and families of color are at higher risk of food insecurity, Davis added, as well as financial distress and disease.

In addition to extending the waivers beyond Aug. 31, Davis called on lawmakers to boost the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefit by 15% — an amount she said was equal to about $25 per person per month.

Close up of apples, milk, beans and ravioli in a school hot lunch
Photo by Meal Makeover Moms via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 “School Lunch with Leah”

In April, more than 100 lawmakers, including Wisconsin representatives Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan, sent a letter asking leaders of the U.S. House and Senate to make that change, but Republicans have so far resisted.

In early May, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) joined Pocan and Moore in sending a letter to Congressional leadership from both parties pushing for increases to the SNAP program in a future coronavirus relief bill. 

They made specific mention of newly unemployed workers, Native Americans, college students, military families and seniors whose needs they said must be taken into account. Noting these areas were particularly important to Wisconsin residents, they wrote, “In these challenging times, more and more families in Wisconsin and across the country are struggling to put food on their tables. As of this writing, over 30 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past six weeks, and Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has skyrocketed from 3.5 to an estimated 27 percent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Their letter continued: “SNAP is one of our nation’s most important safety nets to lift children, families, and seniors out of poverty, and during this crisis, the program will continue to be a vital line of defense against hunger and malnutrition. As we face historic economic and social disruption during this pandemic, we must bolster the SNAP program and ensure access for those Wisconsinites who need food assistance.”

During the 2009 recession, Congress boosted the maximum benefit to $1.74 per person per meal, and Congress “must make a similar investment” now, they wrote. 

In Wisconsin, the average cost of a meal is $2.84, according to a 2019 study by Feeding America.

In 2019, SNAP served 38 million Americans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Of those, 705,000 live in Wisconsin — about 11% of the state’s population, the same percentage of Wisconsinites living below the poverty line. That equals 617,000 residents living in poverty. 

For  many families, benefits don’t last through the month, Davis said.

A previous COVID-19 response bill, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, included billions of dollars for nutritional assistance for children and families and authorized the USDA to ease some restrictions, according to the agency.

Congresswoman Moore was one of nine federal legislators who, having first-hand experience using the food stamp program in the past, called on Trump not to make $15 billion in planned cuts to the program in February of this year. 

“We are writing today on behalf of the over 36 million American families who currently depend on SNAP, like ours once did, to make ends meet and help the next generation achieve upward mobility,” the they wrote.

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“USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this Coronavirus epidemic,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement at the time. “This is a challenging time for many Americans.”

A USDA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether it would extend the waivers. 

Politico reported last month that the agency “isn’t on board” with doing so.

Two kids, an elementary age boy and girl, eating school lunches on trays
“School lunch” photo by shannonpatrick17 via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Davis also called for an extension and expansion of a temporary benefit program that provides parents and caregivers of children who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals with food benefits equal to the value of school meals. Those resources are “critical” for families facing “unimaginable hardship,” Davis said.

And Duncan called on Congress to provide funds for schools to safely reopen in another coronavirus relief package. Congress has yet to reach a deal that would do so and President Donald Trump has “tried to wish this thing away,” he said.