Summer meals for low-income children have been in the news of late, often with the interests of urban families pitted against those of rural families. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) has introduced the Stop Child Hunger Act to help ensure that all children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year aren’t hungry in the summer months. It’s a timely and important effort. In 2013, approximately 15 percent of children who participated in free or reduced-price meals at school also participated in the federal Summer Food Service Program, due to lack of transportation, limited food distribution areas, and other barriers.
TalkPoverty spoke with Senator Murray about her bill. Here is the conversation:
TalkPoverty: Senator Murray, what is the impetus for introducing the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act at this time?
Senator Patty Murray: Right now, across the country, students are eagerly anticipating the end of the school year and starting the summer break. But for many children, the summer months can be a time of uncertainty, not knowing when they will get their next meal. During the academic year, millions of kids can get free or reduced-price meals at school, but during the summer, many students lose that access to critical food and nutrition. When it comes to making sure children get the nutrition they need, there are no excuses. We can and must do more to prevent child hunger. This bill – the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act – would help kids who qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year get access to food during the summer months.
This issue is very important to me personally. When I was a teenager, my dad, who had fought in World War II, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and could no longer work. My mom found a job, but it didn’t pay nearly enough to support seven kids and a husband with a growing stack of medical bills. For several months, we relied on food stamps. It wasn’t much, but we were able to get by. So, I know what it’s like for families to struggle to put food on the table. I believe as adults it is our moral responsibility to take care of our children, and this bill would be a step to ensure more kids get the nutrition they need to live healthy lives.
TalkPoverty: Are there particular stories from any of your constituents that show just how needed this legislation is?
Senator Murray: I’ve heard from many parents who struggle to put food on the table, especially in the summer months. One mom from my home state said before every meal, her family prays that their food will be enough to sustain them until the next time they’re able to eat. But during the summer, those meals aren’t always enough to keep her kids’ stomachs from growling. These are parents who are doing their best to stretch every penny, and still coming up short. I’ve heard from another woman who said that last summer, she tried her best at the grocery store to shop sales, use coupons, and only buy the store-brand items, but it wasn’t enough. This legislation would help those families, and millions like them, by filling a gap in the social safety net during the summer months.
TalkPoverty: If passed, how would the lives of low-income families improve during the summer months?
Senator Murray: This bill would target the challenge of summer hunger by helping families afford food when school is out of session. Providing families with an EBT card with funds for groceries would help replace meals that kids would otherwise get at school. Under this bill, families would receive an extra $150 for every child who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals during the school year. If enacted, it would help about 30 million children every year.
The bill is a common sense approach to help kids who might otherwise struggle with hunger. It’s based on a successful pilot program that has been proven to reduce “very low food insecurity,” often called hunger, by 33 percent. The pilot also resulted in children eating healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables.
TalkPoverty: What are the long-term benefits of this legislation—both in terms of children having more access to food and in moving the nation towards more effectively addressing food insecurity?
Senator Murray: When kids don’t get the nutrition they need, it can have ripple effects on their health, their development, and their chances at success in school and beyond. Studies have shown that kids who struggle with hunger and food insecurity don’t do as well in school and score lower on achievement tests. For low-income families, the challenge to put enough food on the table doesn’t end when school lets out for the summer. In fact, for many families, it can get more difficult because children no longer have access to school meals. In 2013, only about 15 percent of children who participated in free or reduced-price school meals were able to participate in summer meals programs.
This is the kind of legislation that Congress should be pursuing. It’s based on a proven pilot program that achieved participation rates of about 90 percent in some sites. To stop hunger among children, we need to build on effective local, state, and national strategies that fill gaps in the safety net and give people the chance they need to climb the economic ladder. And that’s what this bill does.
TalkPoverty: Your legislation includes provisions to offset the costs of addressing summer child hunger by closing loopholes that reward companies for shifting jobs overseas. Does this reflect a desire on your part that we reexamine our priorities as a nation?
Senator Murray: The legislation is fully paid for by closing a wasteful corporate tax loophole that encourages U.S. companies to shift jobs and profits offshore. So, this bill would help low-income and middle class families in two ways: It would help more kids get the nutrition they need during the summer, while taking a step to make our tax system fairer, by encouraging companies to keep more jobs here in America, in the process. Right now, our broken and unfair tax system provides enormous subsidies to the wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations, all while one in five households in our country struggle with food insecurity. So I do think we should eliminate loopholes for those who need it least and prioritize doing more to expand opportunities for more Americans to get ahead.
TalkPoverty: What are some of the challenges of moving this or any other anti-poverty legislation through Congress?
Senator Murray: The issue of hunger among children in the summer months is one that clearly affects every state in the nation and one that should be a concern of both Democrats and Republicans. While I understand that any efforts to deal with hunger and poverty could be difficult based on some of the recent efforts in the House of Representatives, I believe that it is possible to achieve bipartisan consensus that would help address the problem of child summer hunger. The best opportunity to do that will be in the Child Nutrition Act that needs to be reauthorized next year.
TalkPoverty: What role and/or responsibility do Congress and the Executive have in educating the country about issues of poverty and inequality? What is your sense of how well poverty and hunger are understood by Americans and your colleagues?
Senator Murray: I think in our country, there is a broad understanding and a long-held belief that every American, no matter their zip code or their parents’ career, should have the opportunity to succeed. In Congress, I believe it’s our obligation to enact legislation that furthers that ideal. That includes leading on issues that help struggling families find their footing and ensuring we have a strong safety net.
As someone who relied on food stamps earlier in my life, I also feel very compelled to remind other leaders that investing in children is a good investment. Fortunately for my family, we lived in a country where the government didn’t just say ‘tough luck.’ It extended a helping hand. Because our nation honored the commitment it made to the veterans who had served it, we didn’t have to worry too much about medical bills for my dad. To get a better paying job, my mom needed more training. Fortunately, at the time there was a government program that helped her attend Lake Washington Vocational School where she got a two-year degree in accounting, and, eventually, a better job. My twin sister, my older brother, and I were able to stay in college through student loans and support from what later came to be called Pell Grants. And all of the kids were able to stay in school because we are lucky enough to have strong local public schools. My family got by with a little bit of luck. We pulled through with a lot of hard work. And while I’d like to say we were strong enough to make it on our own, I don’t think that’s really true. So when politicians refer to families like mine as “takers, not makers,” that these programs are “immoral,” or that we were in the “47 percent” who couldn’t be convinced to take personal responsibility or care for our lives, I remind them that the support we got from our government was the difference between seven kids who might not have graduated from high school or college and the seven adults we’ve grown up to be today. Today, we are all college graduates, paying taxes, and doing the best to contribute back to our communities. In my book, taxpayers got a pretty good return on their investment.