As my last post said, the summer meal programs subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reach only a fraction of children whose family incomes are low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year.
So a far larger number are at risk of hunger — and their parents more so because they go without to keep their children fed, as they themselves say and USDA food insecurity data confirm.
No one, I hope, would argue that we ought to do away with the summer meal programs, though you never can tell, these days. But both their track record and inherent limits suggest they’re not the sole answer to summertime hunger.
Senator Patty Murray has introduced a bill — the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act — that could very well do what its title says. At the same time, it would reduce, if not altogether avert what’s probably more common parent hunger.
Basically, the bill would provide families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals with the cost equivalent of free breakfasts and lunches during the summer break.
Their summer food budget supplement would be loaded onto an electronic benefits transfer card like the EBT card now used for SNAP (food stamp) benefits — and in some states, also WIC benefits.
This would initially give families an extra $150 per school-age child for the summer. As with SNAP, they could use their cards only to purchase food and non-alcoholic beverages.
Stipends would be adjusted to keep pace with USDA’s school meal reimbursement rates, which are subject to annual adjustments based on a Consumer Price Index for “food away from home,” i.e., the costs of foods and beverages purchased in restaurants, carry-outs and the like.
Murray’s proposal builds on a USDA-funded project to explore alternative ways of bridging gaps in regular school meal programs.
You may have read about it recently because Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee caused quite a flap in certain left-leaning quarters when they restricted the next phase to rural counties in the Appalachian region.
Senator Murray is apparently satisfied with the results of the initial pilot — as well she might be. The evaluation team found, among many things, that the summer EBT cards, providing basically the same benefit her bill would, reduced very low food security among children by 33%.
Translated from USDA-speak, this means that nearly a third of the children who’d otherwise at least sometimes literally not have had enough to eat didn’t go hungry. And they ate more good things like fruits and veggies too.
A veritable host of major organizations have endorsed the Murray bill. Doubtful, however, that it will go anywhere at this point — not because it would add to the deficit (heaven forefend), but in part because of the way Murray would pay for it.
Specifically, her bill would offset the estimated $42 billion 10-year cost by closing a corporate tax loophole that enables multinationals to deduct interest they pay on debt they take on to finance offshore operations before they report any related income on their U.S. tax returns — assuming they ever do.
One can hardly expect multinationals to hold their fire — or “business-friendly” members of Congress either.
Beyond this, as Rob Hotakainen at McClatchyDC notes, some members of Congress don’t much care for the subsidized school meal programs the Murray bill would complement.
Recall Congressman Paul Ryan’s embarrassingly untrue story of the child who longed for a brown-bag lunch lovingly prepared by his mom.
And, less widely reported, the “evidence” his War on Poverty report cited for impacts of the school lunch program — only possible contributions to child obesity.
Well, the Child Nutrition Act is due for renewal next year. This will give Congress a chance to review and perhaps revise the Summer Food Service Program, as well as eight other programs that aim to ensure that children are healthy and hunger-free, as the title of the current law says.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like the Murray bill folded into larger proposals for strengthening the CNA programs.
It would be a good addition to — not substitute for — measures to strengthen the summer meal programs, which got short shrift last time round, as the Food Research and Action Center has noted.
But whether Congress will be inclined to expand the CNA is, at best, an open question.