Weekly Columns

For children, summertime brings a euphoric feeling of freedom. For a few months, it means no more early classes, pop quizzes or homework. But for too many children in Arkansas, it raises levels of anxiety instead of euphoria because they no longer have a reliable prospect to eat a meal at breakfast or lunchtime.

Over 300,000 Arkansas students depend on free or reduced-price breakfast or lunch served during the school year. Many of those students lose access to the same nutritious meals when school is out. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) was created to fill in that gap during the summer months.

The SFSP offers children from low-income families free lunch and snacks in the summer. While it works well in some communities, too many children still go hungry during the summer. This is evidenced by the fact that summer meals currently reach less than 20 percent of children who participate in similar programs during the school year.

The program is hamstrung by rules that date back to the 1960s and dictate a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem of summer hunger. Currently, children must travel to a central location and eat their meals together. In rural areas, it can be difficult for children to reach a site, if a site even exists. In suburban and urban areas, inclement weather or violence can keep children from these sites and cause them to miss a meal.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and I are leading a bipartisan charge to overcome this challenge and make federal child nutrition programs more efficient, flexible and better equipped to reach children in need. Our bill, the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019, brings colleagues from different regions, with views across the political spectrum, together to address the issue and it counts Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as one of its cosponsors. We teamed up because 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.

The bill proposes two alternative options states can utilize through SFSP to reach children who can’t access meals at a central location. The first would allow for meals to be consumed off-site through innovative means like mobile feeding programs and backpack meals. The other option would authorize the summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program, which would provide eligible families $30 per summer month per child, with a maximum of $100 per child per year, to purchase food from approved retailers. In USDA pilot programs, summer EBT was shown to reduce child hunger by over 30 percent.

Local groups who currently operate summer meals sites do an excellent job providing a seamless transition from school lunches to summer lunches for many children in the state. Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, our local foodbanks and others want to be helpful in reaching children whose transition from school year to summer is not as smooth. The changes proposed in the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act of 2019 will channel the energy and want-to of these helpers to make the summer meals program work for all areas of the state.