Weekly Columns

Americans have long called on Washington to cut inefficiencies in federal programs and modernize them for the 21stcentury. Yet rarely, are those calls heard on Capitol Hill. 

Come this summer, we will get a good glimpse at what happens when Congress follows through with rhetoric and puts change into motion, as a lot of hungry children will be helped as a result.

A long overdue modernization of our summer meals program, based on ideas I have championed for years, recently became law. 

These reforms update rules that have been in place for over 60 years. Generations of families have struggled with the challenges these restrictive regulations presented while Washington sat idle.

Those difficulties arose from the requirement that children travel to a central location and eat at that site during the summer. This may work well in some communities. However, in rural areas, it can be difficult for children to reach a meal site, if one even exists. 

Continuing down this antiquated path left many families scrambling to find access to nutritious meals for their children during the months when classes are not in session. 

The solution I have long advocated for, and successfully incorporated in the Fiscal Year 2023 government funding package, is to give states more options to reach hungry children during the summer. There are proven ways to achieve this goal, but until now, states have been powerless to employ commonsense approaches like off-site meal options or the issuance of electronic benefits cards.  

These options do not replace congregate feeding sites, which as I previously noted, work well in many communities. But the one-size-fits all approach is outdated, and states have needed additional ways to fill the void in communities where it is not feasible for children to gather in a central location to eat. 

Moving forward, states will be allowed to provide non-congregate meal options, such as grab-and-go or home delivery, to eligible children, and issue Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, capped at $40 per child per month, to eligible families on a permanent basis. 

These options proved to be quite effective during the pandemic. When social distancing mandates were in place, Congress waived the requirement for children to travel to a central location and eat their meals onsite. In turn, this spurred innovation with public-private partnerships that provided access to nutritious meals for young Arkansans. 

We already had evidence to show summer EBT works. Pilot programs conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture prior to the pandemic showed summer EBT successfully reduced child hunger by over 30 percent among participants.

A handful of my colleagues and I had been pushing for these changes for many years. The success of these options during the pandemic convinced the rest of Congress it was time to act. While I am pleased to see these much-needed reforms are now law, it really should not be this difficult for Congress to act when a solution is staring us in the face.  

While government is almost always behind the curve on innovation, we can show the American people that we are serious about fixing the way Washington works. It just takes a willingness from policymakers to focus on solutions, rather than punditry. Ending food insecurity is a great place to start that commitment.