Weekly Columns

With winter weather bearing down on Arkansas, most people aren’t thinking about summertime problems. However, we are trying to stay ahead of the curve in Washington. 

Last week the Senate Agriculture Committee included legislation I authored to reform the summer meals program in a comprehensive reauthorization of the nation’s child nutrition programs. 

The larger reauthorization package recently approved by the committee ensures that child nutrition programs—including the National School Lunch Program, Summer Food Service Program and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)—continue to operate. 

While it is not a perfect bill, it will result in significant improvements to child nutrition programs by strengthening fraud prevention, providing much needed flexibility and improving the effectiveness of these programs. 

But the struggle against hunger doesn’t end when the final bell rings and summer break begins. It is a 365-day a year battle. 

That’s why I am pleased that my bill was incorporated into the larger reauthorization as the summer meals program is in desperate need of reform. We have seen firsthand in Arkansas how its one-size-fits-all approach is at odds with the very different challenges our communities face. By giving states the flexibility to choose the approach that makes the most sense for each individual community, we are taking more effective steps toward addressing hunger and malnourishment, even when class is not in session. 

My bill, originally introduced as the Hunger Free Summer for Kids Act, would provide states with additional options for addressing child hunger during the summer by authorizing summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and providing eligible families up to $30 per summer month per child to purchase eligible food items. In United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) pilot programs, Summer EBT reduced the most severe forms of food insecurity for children by 33 percent. 

It also allows states the flexibility to choose what makes the most sense in their communities by giving states the option to provide summer meals without a centralized feeding site when certain conditions exist in rural and high poverty areas.  

Over 50,000 Arkansas children receive summer meals through this program and a significant percentage of Arkansas children live in communities that are not able to operate an open summer meals site. Share our Strength, one of the leading national anti-hunger groups, notes that the state is only able to reach about 23 percent of kids who may need nutritional help during the summer months. 

That’s why we need a summer meals program that works in urban, suburban and rural areas. The provisions included in this bill will give Arkansas and all states the flexibility they need to choose what makes the most sense in their communities, so that children in rural and hard to reach communities are getting the nutrition they need in the summer. 

As a former school board member, I’ve seen first-hand that nutrition is critical to our children’s ability to thrive in and out of the classroom. For too many of our nation’s children, summer can be the hungriest time of the year. The reauthorization of these programs builds on existing efforts to bring efficiency, effectiveness, flexibility and integrity to these programs because no child should have to think about when and where their next meal will come from.