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Putting hunger back on our policy menu

Putting hunger back on our policy menu
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In 2019, the White House proposed changes to the food safety net that could drastically affect whether Americans who are at risk of hunger will go without food. Over the coming year, many of these changes will go into effect and will lead to millions of individuals losing eligibility for food assistance. As the new decade unfolds, the issue of hunger fights for attention amid a fraught political environment. Recently, a coalition of over a dozen states, New York City, and the District of Columbia filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the new rules are contrary to law.

Hunger was not always neglected in national politics. Over five decades ago, the documentary “Hunger in America” broadcast the issue of hunger into American living rooms. Public outcry prompted major federal food reforms in the 1970s, which expanded and shaped today’s food safety net. 

Today, more than 37 million individuals in America live at risk of hunger, including more than 11 million children. The administration is promoting changes that would strip Americans of much-needed food assistance, even as the benefits of economic growth remain unevenly distributed across the country. 

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The administration’s suite of proposed changes, many of which are yet to take effect, will change the way eligibility for food assistance is determined. Allowances for heating bills in colder northern states will be scrapped, and more stringent work requirements will be instituted. The proposals will change the income and asset limits for beneficiaries and increase administrative friction between the food stamp program and other federal aid programs, namely, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Three ingredients make 2020 a time when hunger should be placed on the national agenda in a way that supports those most at risk. Hunger remains a salient issue for American communities, particularly for children and those in rural areas, and now is the time to prevent more from going hungry in America.

First, policymakers are set to get powerful data about household size and potential food insecurity from the 2020 census, which will be key to demonstrating where in America and which Americans are hungry.

Second, hunger is as much a rural issue as it is an urban issue. In fact, rural areas often see higher rates of food insecurity since rural Americans face unique barriers to accessing nutritious food.

Third, surveys suggest that many anti-hunger programs, especially child nutrition programs, enjoy broad support. In a recent YouGov survey, a majority of U.S. adult respondents supported free breakfasts and free lunches in public schools. An earlier survey found that majorities of both Republicans (61 percent) and Democrats (88 percent) supported maintaining or increasing food stamp benefits.

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Commonsense reforms to the food safety net would lift people out of poverty and aid the most disadvantaged people in our society. For example, there are bipartisan proposals pending in the House and Senate that propose better integration between the school-year lunch program and summer meal program. According to the Food Research and Action Center, only 14 children received summer lunch for every 100 low-income children who received a school lunch in the 2017–2018 school year. Put differently, the vast majority of children who qualify for summer meals are not receiving them.

The food safety net was designed with the express purpose “to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's population” and “promote the general welfare” for all. In these particularly turbulent times, promoting access to food for Americans at risk of hunger, particularly children, should be a unifying issue. We can, and should, do better for America’s children. If we do more to reduce hunger today, we can promote America’s well-being for the decades and generations ahead.

Tommy Tobin is an attorney who focuses on food litigation at Perkins Coie LLP.

Mark Brennan managed a U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored summer lunch site in New Brunswick, N.J., and is a doctoral student at MIT.