Weekly Columns

Kids across Arkansas are back at school and many are getting much-needed help to ensure they are receiving proper nourishment through programs that provide free and reduced cost lunches. These programs are especially important to Arkansas given that our state has the highest rate of food insecurity. Nearly 28 percent of Arkansas children struggle with hunger. 

The current law that authorizes these important programs is slated to expire at the end of the month. Congress will be considering options to reauthorize some of these child nutrition programs while bringing much-needed reform to others. 

While I was traveling the state during August, I ate lunch with students at the Wooster Elementary School cafeteria. I wanted to get a firsthand look at a school’s program in action, and Principal Tally Mars and Child Nutrition Director Christa Jackson do an excellent job administering the one at Wooster Elementary. 

The information I gathered from my visit will be very useful as I join my colleagues on the Senate Agriculture Committee as we finalize the reauthorization package. Our goal is to craft a bill that increases efficiency, effectiveness, flexibility and integrity.

It is important to remember that the issue of child hunger does not follow the school year calendar. This is a struggle many Arkansas families face 365 days a year.

That’s why we’ve tried to ensure that there is a seamless transition from the school-year programs into the summer.

Several great organizations and public-private partnerships provide critical help to fill in the gaps to make sure the nutritional needs of Arkansas children are not forgotten over summer.

I visited one organization on the frontlines when I was home over August. The Fort Smith Community Clearinghouse helps combat child hunger in western Arkansas. The Clearinghouse’s “backpack program” provides food for low-income kids to take home each weekend. I also joined anti-hunger leaders at the Little Rock Children’s Library and Arkansas Children’s Hospital Summer Food Service Program sites to learn how meal services can be improved for students during the summer months.

These organizations face challenges that are different than those faced by our schools. For instance, during the summer months, children have to go to a central location to get their meals. This one-size-fits all approach works in some urban areas, but in rural America, where families often face transportation and other issues, we need a more flexible approach.  

In an effort to solve that problem, I introduced the Hunger Free Summer for Kids Act, legislation to make federal child nutrition programs more efficient and flexible to reach children in need during the summer months when school meals are not available. Urban, suburban and rural areas face different challenges, and this legislation gives states the opportunity to choose the approach that makes the most sense for their communities.

We want to create better opportunities for children to access healthy, nutritious meals when class is not in session. That’s why I will be working to get my bill included with the larger reauthorization.

Hunger has no boundaries, but we are in a position to help. I am committed to building on existing efforts by bringing efficiency, effectiveness, flexibility and integrity to the programs because no child should have to think about when and where their next meal will come from.