Giving thanks — and thinking about the hungry

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Thanksgiving is our most festive and family-centric holiday. Like many, we’ll celebrate with our kids and a grandchild tomorrow, then a reprise the next day up at my brother’s, with a larger family entourage.

Ever since a young child, I’ve been excited about Turkey Day, though we may not have turkey this year. Not to spoil it for anyone, but one request: Think for a moment about the millions who can’t feast.

There are 38 million people in America who are food deprived; this includes almost 12 million kids. Imagine in America a child living with the threat of hunger.

It’s unacceptable.

There is, however, some good news. Unlike during other crises, the overall level of hunger didn’t worsen during the Pandemic. Why? The effective government stimulus programs changed and liberalized the rules to get food to kids, changes that had been resisted for years.

Before the 2008 financial crisis, 16.9 percent of children in America lived in food-insecure households. Two years later, that number jumped to 23.2 percent. It took a decade to get that level back, or to a little less than 11 million kids.

Despite the fears, the number food deprived Americans stayed at the same over the last year, though the number of children rose slightly.

That’s the “paradox of the pandemic,” which hurt many poor people, notes Billy Shore, the founder, with his sister, of Share Our Strength (SOS), an enormously effective national program to end childhood hunger: “But the response indicated why childhood hunger is a very solvable problem. Hunger is a political issue, not a resource issue.”

The stimulus relief bills included enhanced assistance and less rigid rules for feeding poor kids. When schools closed, the government waived the rules to permit school breakfast, lunch and after school assistance to be taken directly to families that qualified. Advocates like Share our Strength had been pushing this for years; limiting school breakfast, lunch or after school efforts to in-place or congregant schools gatherings leaves some hungry kids out.

A huge change was making more food for poor children accessible during the summer; previously, there were only pilot programs in five states — and only one in seven kids in need received food assistance when school was out. Grocery bills for these families typically rose 30 percent in the summers.

Now, through the Electronic Benefits transfer program, assistance has been given during the summers, and the numbers have improved dramatically.

Nonprofit organizations facilitated the massive federal assistance efforts. Share our Strength has given $100 million in grants to schools for technical assistance, navigating the waivers, and for items like transportation and some food service employees.

Many of the changes will expire at the end of this year.

Congress has the chance to keep reaching kids with the food they need through the awkwardly worded Build Back Better bill. The legislation, for example, contains the expansion of the community eligibility provision which opens up free school meals to as many as 8 to 9 million more kids in high-poverty schools. The legislation passed the House last week, with only Democratic votes, but its fate in the Senate is unclear.

In addition to the critical food assistance for children, the measure also would extend the child tax credit, which gives a refundable tax credit up to $3,600 a child. An estimated 50 percent of the money or savings from this credit goes for food.

The implications for child hunger are profound. “The Build Back Better has the potential to end childhood hunger in America,” ventures Billy Shore. “It would be transformational.” In the hopes this will succeed, SOS has hired political experts to build out field operations to make sure poor families are aware of the benefits.

No one articulates the importance better than Danny Meyer, the fabled restaurateur and longtime child hunger advocate. “The root cause of poverty is child hunger. They don’t have a lobby in Congress.” Like Napoleon’s description of a well-fed army, Meyer notes: “A well-fed populous tends to be a good citizenry.”

There’s a big pay-off: “When you feed a child, they’re more likely to do well in class, on tests, go to high school, and more likely to get on a path out of poverty,” says Christy Harvey Felling, director of media and public affairs at Share Our Strength.

That’s a point missed by most Republicans and Democrats like Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) when they worry about the costs and inflationary impact. They should talk to Larry Summers, the prominent economist and former Democratic Treasury Secretary, whose prescient inflationary warnings they often cite. Summers, who worried about some earlier big spending measures, supports the Build Back Better bill as important investments.

He’s right.

It’s also a moral imperative. No kid in America should be food deprived.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags coronavirus stimulus COVID-19 stimulus Food and drink Food insecurity Hunger in the United States Joe Manchin Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act Poverty school lunch programs School meal Social justice

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