Weekly Columns

Classrooms across the state are full of eager students ready to learn. Many Arkansas school kids are better prepared to learn as a result of a bipartisan law approved months ago helping ensure children could enjoy summer vacation without having to worry about being hungry. 

As the lead Republican on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, I joined with my Democrat counterpart to broker a deal to ensure kids have access to healthy, nutritious meals over the course of the summer and this school year.

The Keep Kids Fed Act allowed meal program operators to continue to utilize flexibilities granted at the onset of the pandemic over this past summer break. It also extends administrative and paperwork flexibilities through the current school year to help schools streamline meal operations and continue serving food despite supply chain disruptions.  

We’re all well aware of the skyrocketing food costs. On the Biden administration’s watch, food inflation has shot up to its highest rate since Jimmy Carter was president. This trend has increased food insecurity at home for many young Arkansans while also making it more difficult for schools and hunger relief organizations to step in and help those same children.   

This need is especially acute during the summertime when families with children who rely on  meals at school no longer have access to this resource. In Arkansas, and across the country, there are a number of excellent organizations that step in to help during those months, but they are hamstrung by rules dating back to the 1960s. 

I have long-championed reforming the summer meals program to fix this outdated model. The flexibilities Congress granted providers during the pandemic were based off the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act which I introduced in the Senate. Removing outdated requirements during the pandemic spurred innovation with public-private partnerships and provided access to nutritious meals for young Arkansans. The success of this updated model offers a good recipe for how to reach more children in need.  

In order to comply with social distancing mandates, Congress waived the requirement for children to travel to a central location and eat their meals together. While the congregate feeding standard works well in some communities, it clearly was not possible to operate in this manner during a pandemic. Even before COVID, it wasn’t feasible in many rural areas, as it can be difficult for children to reach a site—if one even exists. In suburban and urban areas, inclement weather or violence can keep children from these sites and cause them to miss a meal. 

The pandemic-instituted changes proved new options—from off-site, grab-and-go models, to home delivery, to electronic benefits transfer—do in fact reach a broader audience of those in need. While continuing to ensure that children have access to healthy meals this coming school year, the summertime flexibilities provided through the Keep Kids Feed Actshould be part of an overdue child nutrition reauthorization. As we recognize September as Hunger Action Month, I am committed to fighting hunger and will continue pushing for passage of the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act in a broader reauthorization to ensure all options for summertime meals remain on the table.