As another school year begins, Teresa Fernandez of Miami, Florida feels guilty about how much her family relies on free school meals to keep hunger at bay.
“As a mother, I feel awful that I can’t afford to buy the groceries I need to feed my children all the time,” she says.
By contrast, certain lawmakers seem to have no such issues of guilt for the role they play in contributing to the problem of childhood hunger — and worsening the impossible quandary struggling parents face as they are forced to decide between buying food and paying other essential bills.
It’s a scenario more families find themselves enduring as a result of several significant recent moves by Republican lawmakers that target the SNAP and WIC programs – both of which provide critical access to food for some of the most vulnerable Americans. Any cuts or threats to those programs are especially painful now, as the last of pandemic emergency funds dry up and the GOP threaten a shutdown instead of coming up with solutions for a new way forward.
It’s understandable, then, that Fernandez feels a sense of relief at this time of year, thankful that her kids will at least have a reliable source of meals during the school day. She said she faces anxiety at the start of each summer, and this year the feeling of panic seemed even worse than usual, with the end of programs that had been helping families like hers.
When the school year ends, the mother of two – one elementary school aged and one high school aged child – searches for schools or community organizations that offer free meals over the summer. She works the graveyard shift and makes minimum wage. It’s not enough to buy the groceries her family needs, yet too much for her family to be eligible for SNAP benefits.
Millions of families with children suffer food insecurity
Summer break is a time when students (and their parents) should be able to relax and take a break from the demands and busy schedules of the school year. But the sad reality is that for kids that suffer from hunger on a regular basis, they and their parents can dread the arrival of summer vacation.
There are millions of families that meet the USDA eligibility requirements to be given free or reduced meals at school. According to USDA figures from 2019, 30 million students in the U.S. received free or reduced-price meals during the school year pre-pandemic.
Parents and caregivers have already seen their food budgets stretched thin as prices at the grocery store have continued to climb this past year. Plus, when temporary increases in funding for SNAP ended in March, more than 16 million U.S. households saw their benefits decrease. Food insecurity affects 1 in 8 children nationwide.
For families struggling with the high cost of grocery bills, the end of the school year brings financial anxiety. Instead of working parents having to take on additional hours or jobs to make ends meet, they should be able to enjoy precious time with their kids to make special family memories. We all deserve that.
To make matters worse, as families were still adjusting to reduced SNAP benefits, the Keep Kids Fed Act (KKFA) expired on June 30, 2023.
KKFA made it easier to get food to kids — especially in rural areas, increased the reimbursement rate for each meal and snack, and helped offset food costs for child care providers at daycares and home-based centers.
A group of 56 national organizations, including Community Change Action, came together in July of this year in a letter urging Congress to extend the KKFA meal reimbursement increases to help schools and child care providers feed children over the summer and during the upcoming school year.
A bill to do just that was introduced in March 2023, but has not moved any further. In the meantime, the USDA provided some additional funds for states and territories to purchase food for the 2023-2024 school year.
As a former case manager, I know how damaging hunger can be
Still, too many children are going to bed hungry.
When children go hungry it makes them more susceptible to increased behavioral and emotional issues. As a former case manager working with low-income families, I encountered many students who had behavioral issues, and who came from homes where parents struggled to feed them properly and make ends meet.
There were significant changes in the students’ behavior and attitude when we would connect their family with the proper agencies that would provide them with nutritious food on a consistent basis. There are studies that prove how food insecurity impacts a child’s ability to succeed in school.
Policymakers who claim to care about the rights of kids and parents should take this as a serious human rights issue and act now to ensure children don’t experience hunger at any time of year.
Meanwhile, let’s keep the shame and blame where it belongs. Not with parents like Fernandez who are doing the best they can, struggling and often sacrificing to afford whatever food they can — but rather with some lawmakers who are literally taking food out of the mouths of hungry kids and playing politics with our lives.