If Congress can’t work together to address child hunger we’re doomed

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President Biden has made it abundantly clear that improving the lives of children will be a focal point of his administration. Just weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a new initiative that stands to feed over 30 million needy children this summer. And the centerpiece of his proposed American Families Plan is a bold investment in the future of America’s youth by expanding access to early education and child care, and providing economic relief to families through child tax credit extensions. 

Another provision of the American Families Plan addresses a critical need the pandemic has further magnified. But it’s one Republicans have historically opposed: expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Whether this increase will survive will depend largely on bipartisan efforts to resolve the national tragedy of food insecurity. In the richest country in the world, too many children go to bed hungry every night.

SNAP, as the program describes itself, “provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency.” The program has long played a part in feeding disadvantaged children. But with the number of hungry Americans skyrocketing as a result of COVID-19, food assistance has never been more important. Images of people waiting in miles-long car lines to receive food from local pantries to feed their families throughout the pandemic provide dramatic testimony to the size and scope of the problem America currently faces. 

A recent analysis by Feeding America anticipates that 42 million people will be food insecure this year — down slightly from 45 million in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The statistics also expose an enormous equity gap, where nearly twice as many Black Americans (21 percent) will suffer its effects compared to white Americans (11 percent). These families will not be celebrating a return to normalcy this year; they will remain in a chronic state of hunger and poor nutritional health for the foreseeable future. 

Biden has signaled his intention of running directly at this problem by proposing an injection of $45 billion to address food insecurity. It includes an expansion of the summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program to allow families eligible for free or reduced-priced meals during the school year to continue throughout the summer. It includes expanded support for schools offering healthy food options. And it proposes increased funding for SNAP to make free meals available in areas where they’re needed most, widen their accessibility to children in elementary schools and eliminate obstacles for formerly incarcerated individuals to receive SNAP benefits. They, like all of us, need food to survive.

If history is any indication, Biden’s proposed funding increase for SNAP could face a steep climb. SNAP has historically been a lightning rod for Republicans who, in the past, have opposed attempts to expand the program. Last year, Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) reportedly said he was “jaded” by past actions to enhance SNAP benefits and didn’t want “to create a moral hazard for people to be on welfare.” 

At a time when America’s need to access healthy food is at near record levels, will Congress turn its back? In this moment of tremendous suffering, will SNAP opponents listen to that inner voice calling them to take action to help the most vulnerable and disenfranchised by improving access to the most basic necessity of human life? 

An issue as grave as child hunger should never be politicized. And that’s especially true in light of the increased toll on nutritional health caused by COVID-19. 

We must put America’s youth on a stronger path toward a brighter future. Food insecurity won’t go away until or unless we take aggressive steps to fix it. And in this time of enormous political division, where bipartisanship is rare and hard to come by, can child hunger be a rare moment that brings both sides together?  

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Tags American Families Plan Childhood hunger COVID-19 Food insecurity hungry children Joe Biden low-income families Mike Conaway Nutrition Snap SNAP benefits

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