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

By Allison Stevens

WASHINGTON (VM) — A school nutrition leader in Virginia is 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 U.S. 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.

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.”

Nearly a quarter of a million Virginia kids, about one in eight, struggle with hunger , 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 percent — an amount she said was equal to about $25 per person per month.

In April, more than 100 lawmakers, including five Virginia representatives, sent a letter asking leaders of the U.S. House and Senate to do that, but Republicans have so far resisted.

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 Virginia, the average cost of a meal is $3.10, 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 Virginia — about 8 percent of the state’s population.

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.

“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   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.

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.

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