How does hunger continue to be a problem in the greatest nation on the Earth? It seems unfathomable that in the same country where we have 724 billionaires, we can also have nearly 1 in 6 children not knowing where their next meal is coming from. That is approximately 13 million children who are going to bed hungry most nights. This robs me of sleep.
Hunger is often an invisible problem, especially in our own neighborhoods. Even after years as an advocate, you can still be caught off guard. This was brought to light by a chance visit from a retired principal to one of the six sites my library partnered with to provide meals to children during the pandemic. As she walked by our distribution table, she asked what we were doing. When the evening’s team leader told her about our involvement providing meals, the principal broke into tears. She knew how much need there was, and how much these meals would mean to many in our community.
Prior to the pandemic, only one of the six sites mentioned above was eligible to participate in the programs we use to prevent kids from going hungry. Covid has laid bare a number of problems with the safety net, especially with regards to federal nutrition programs. It induced several changes that have increased the reach and effectiveness of many programs, though I want to focus specifically on two particular programs.
If you’re not familiar with the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) or The Afterschool Meals Program (CACFP), they exist to fill in the gaps when students don’t have access to meals from school. SFSP exists to make sure kids who rely on free and reduced-price meals at school have access to nutritious meals during the summer. Under normal circumstances, SFSP allows non-profits in areas where the nearby school district has a 50% participation rate in the Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program to serve a meal and a snack or two meals each day to school age kids without regard to income eligibility. Afterschool Meals allow dinner to be served during the school year under similar rules.
Early in the pandemic, when eligibility was reduced from 50% participation to 30%, I spoke at a meeting of several community groups in the next county to the North of where I live. Very few of the areas were eligible to participate even though they were seeing increased need as small businesses were beginning to shutter and everyone except groceries and essential businesses began laying people off. One particular group was able to find a grant and provide hot meals for a while.
As the pandemic worsened and the number of children coming to them increased, they ran out of money. By chance, I reached back out to several groups as the requirements for participation were relaxed and more areas became eligible for these federal programs. Within a couple of weeks, they were able to resume their programming and provide meals.
To put things in perspective: The previous summer, we operated a site at an elementary school in a small community about fifteen minutes from town. On average, we served twenty children each week. The sites we opened at the beginning of the pandemic operated at about that same level. Then businesses and schools started closing. We saw our participation at a church a mile or two outside of town go from twenty to forty to almost seventy children over the course of three weeks. This was at a site that was not walkable, as the population centers in our district were not yet eligible. People were carpooling to pick up food for their kids.
During the pandemic, the USDA extended significant eligibility and other waivers that have allowed non-profits, municipalities and schools to reach more children.
The following is an incomplete rundown of how the programs run normally vs on waivers. This chart will be neither totally accurate nor exhaustive, as there are differences between the two programs and because of the fact that states can interpret the waivers in different ways, but it will give you a general idea of how the scope has broadened.
|Pre-Covid||With USDA Waivers|
|Nearest school has 50% participation rate in Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program||Nearest school participates in National School Lunch Program (Over 99% of schools in the US do)|
|Child must be present to receive meal||Parent can pick up meal for child|
|Child must eat meal on site||Meals may be taken home|
|Only one meal at a time||Sites may distribute a week’s worth of meals at a time.|
|Limited time windows to serve meals||Meal distribution times significantly expanded to accommodate increased access.|
What this means going forward is very important. The SFSP and CACFP waivers are driven by programs that fall under what is called the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Every five years, Congress is to attempt to review the programs that fall under this umbrella. Should they not take up this task, the programs continue on without change rather than expire. The programs have not been updated since 2010 and some parts have remain unchanged for several decades.
The stresses placed on our safety net have created a situation where there is significant desire on both sides of the aisle to make many of these waivers, or something close to them, permanent via the CNR. During the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in March, we heard from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack who mentioned, among many topics, childhood nutrition as a national security issue. Upwards of 70% of our youth are unfit for military service due to poor nutrition and related health issues. Key senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and John Boozman of Arkansas detailed their desire to make significant updates to the programs under CNR because of the problems the pandemic brought to the fore. I was also able to sit in on phone calls with one of my senators and my representative. Though they had differing ideas of how much change needed to happen, but they both recognized that significant updates need to happen.
Not every limitation of the programs has been addressed by the pandemic waivers. A pre-schooler and a heavyweight wrestler still each receive the exact same meal. Many eligible areas lack access to vendors capable of providing meals through the program. The paperwork required to participate is significant. If there is no sponsoring organization to handle the paperwork and upfront costs for the program, it can be difficult for smaller organizations to participate. I am also surprised at how often communities are unaware of these programs.
“Without action, my community alone will lose the ability to provide supplemental and in some cases the only meals some kids may get during the summer or after school once the waivers expire.”
These programs are not simple handouts as many would have you believe. They are an investment in our future. “Hungry kids can’t learn,” it’s true. Kids who are chronically hungry do not perform as well as their well-fed peers. Their long term outcomes are often limited, they face increased likelihood of incarceration, addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. These couple with lower educational outcomes and higher absenteeism and lower productivity.
Given time, I believe these investments can recoup and possibly exceed their value in returns to the economy and the community. Beyond the simple fact that no one should starve in America (or anywhere else), this is part of why we need to make sure to elect legislators who recognize people as worthy investments and not just variables in an economic equation.
From November 2020, starting with one site outside town, through the end of the school year with five sites and sixth starting at the beginning of summer, we were able to distribute 14,111 meals to hungry children. Our school district has a population of just over 12,000. Without these waivers, we would only have been able to service two of the smaller communities and none of our more populated areas.
The waivers have been progressively expanded, beginning with then President Trump’s initial waivers in early 2020 through President Biden’s extension through the 2021-2022 school year. Without action on the CNR, my community alone will lose the ability to provide supplemental and in some cases the only meals some kids may get during the summer or after school once the waivers expire. Please join me in contacting your legislators at the federal level about the CNR.
If you are interested in starting a program in your community, you can contact your state’s SFSP/CACFP administering agency (or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find a starting point).
Shane Hoffman is a husband and father of three, a librarian and founder of Team Vittles, a group of librarians who speak around Ohio encouraging libraries to participate in anti-hunger efforts. He is also a member of the State Committee of the American Solidarity Party Ohio and a 2021 Great Lakes Region delegate to American Solidarity Party Convention. He was a 2020 Write-In candidate for Ohio’s 15th Congressional District.