U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) is leading a bipartisan charge to make federal child nutrition programs more efficient, flexible and better equipped to reach Arkansas children in need during the summer months.Boozman and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019 to add flexibility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program. The program offers children from low-income families free lunch and snacks in the summer. The bill gives states additional options to reach hungry children in communities without a centralized feeding site during the summer.Jeff Quick, Executive Director of the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, says he has been working with Senator Boozman for a number of years to address this concern.
Currently, children must travel to a central location to eat their meals together. Like Senator Boozman, Quick says this plan doesn't work in some communities.
Quick's efforts to make changes in the summer food service program have extended beyond visits with Senator Boozman.
Quick says the most recent data from Feeding America Map the Meal Gap Feeding America in April indicates there are more than 1,100 in Baxter County who are at risk of not knowing where their next meal will come from. Across the food bank's nine-county service area, roughly one in four children are at risk.
He says those associated with the food bank are excited about the possibilities with the passage of the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019.
The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019 proposes two alternative options states can utilize through the program. The first would allow for meals to be consumed off-site through innovative means like mobile feeding programs and backpack meal programs.
The other option would authorize the summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program, which would provide eligible families $30 per summer month per child, with a maximum of $100 per child per year, to purchase eligible food items from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) approved retailers. In USDA pilot programs, summer EBT was shown to reduce child hunger by over 30 percent.
Boozman says summer meals currently reach less than 20 percent of children who participate in similar programs during the school year. The one-size-fits-all approach is not meeting the needs of Arkansas children. He says we need a summer meals program that works for all areas, urban, suburban and rural. The bill aims to achieve this by giving states the flexibility to choose what makes the most sense in their communities to alleviate summertime hunger for children.
"Too many children who rely on school meals during the school year go hungry during the summer. The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act would help alleviate summer hunger by expanding access to summer EBT cards through SNAP, and by providing flexibility to allow children to take meals home where a summer program is not an option. Our children are the future. In the richest nation in the world, we can and must ensure that children have the food they need to learn and thrive. This bill is an important step in that direction," Leahy said.
The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019 has the support of leading national advocacy groups including Feeding America, Share Our Strength, Alliance to End Hunger, Bread for the World, United Way Worldwide, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, First Focus Campaign for Children and the Congressional Hunger Center.
Advocacy organizations that work with food insecure families in Arkansas are also weighing in with their support for Boozman's bill, including the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the Arkansas Food Bank, the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas and the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank.
Kathy Webb, Executive Director of Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, said the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019 will make a "significant difference" in the effort to reduce child hunger during the summertime.
Webb said, "The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act will make a significant difference to Arkansas children and their families, and we thank Sen. Boozman for his leadership. This legislation provides the options families need to overcome barriers and to access nutritious food their kids need in the summer. This will make a difference in rural Arkansas and in our towns and cities. When our children get the nutrition they need, they feel better, learn more, and grow up stronger. And that means more people reaching their full potential and a stronger Arkansas."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and John Hoeven (R-ND) all joined Boozman and Leahy as original cosponsors of the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019.
"The summer months should be an opportunity for children to play and learn outside of the classroom. It shouldn't be a time where they struggle to find their next meal," said McConnell. "The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act would give food banks and other organizations the flexibility they need to reach more kids when they're not in school. Sadly, one in five Kentucky children experience food insecurity, which can lead to lifelong health and developmental issues. Our Commonwealth's diverse regions and communities require a workable program that helps reach more children, not a one-size-fits-all federal standard. I applaud Senators Boozman and Leahy for their leadership on this important issue, and I'm proud to cosponsor this bipartisan legislation to help ensure that all kids, especially those in rural communities, have year-round access to nutritious meals."
Boozman noted the regional and ideologically diverse group of senators, all members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Community, behind this bill is significant and specifically highlighted the importance of having the support of the Majority Leader as "crucial to helping us achieve the goals laid out in the bill."
"My colleagues joining me to introduce this bill come from different regions and hold views from across the political spectrum. What brings us together is that we have seen the need for more options to end hunger in our communities and share a belief that the best solutions to this problem come from the ground up. I am particularly grateful for the support of Majority Leader McConnell, as his backing will be crucial to helping us achieve the goals laid out in the bill," Boozman said.
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