By Rob Hotakainen McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Everett resident Charity Edwards is unemployed and separated from her husband, raising four kids on a monthly income of $1,100.
She gets another $419 a month in food stamps to help feed her two girls, ages 6 and 11, and her two boys, ages 15 and 17.
“There’s not money left to buy clothes,” said Edwards, 38.
Under a bill introduced Wednesday by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, Edwards would get $600 — $150 per child — to buy food when schools are not in session each summer.
Murray jumped into the latest food fray on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress are bickering over school lunch rules, including how much to spend on poor children and what foods would most benefit them.
She said her plan would cost $42 billion over 10 years, helping 30 million kids, including 475,000 in Washington state and nearly 62,000 in Pierce County alone, beginning in 2016.
Eligible families — those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches during the school year — would get the money for summer food in electronic benefit transfer cards. In Snohomish County, more than 42,000 pupils got free or reduced-price lunches during the 2012-13 school year, according to data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“When school lets out for the summer, many of those same kids lose access to regular meals and go without the nutrition that they need,” Murray said in an interview. “I believe that kids shouldn’t have to spend the summer months wondering when they’re going to get the next meal.”
As part of her work, Murray is promoting smaller details, too: She wants poor kids to be able to eat more white potatoes, a big crop in Washington.
Murray, along with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and 18 other senators, wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking to include white potatoes on the list of approved foods used in the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
Many Republicans in the House of Representatives back the idea, too. Critics, however, say kids already eat enough starchy vegetables and that they should eat other, healthier vegetables.
The issues will come to a head in coming weeks as Congress finalizes new spending plans for the Agriculture Department, which oversees school lunches and the WIC program.
But finding consensus will be difficult.
In the House, many Republicans worry that the school lunch program already is too costly.
And they fear it will get even more expensive with new federal guidelines backed by first lady Michelle Obama. They would require schools to offer more fruits and vegetables, whole wheat products and low-sodium foods. The guidelines have been phased in over the past two years, with more changes due this year.
Critics say it’s a mistake to force schools to offer food that many students refuse to eat, resulting in more food in the garbage and fewer students eating the meals.
“Less kids are buying school lunches and that undermines the intention to increase healthy eating in schools,” said Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, the chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. After hosting a school meal forum in his home state last month, Aderholt said it was time “to hit the pause button” on new guidelines.
On Tuesday, his panel approved a bill that would let districts get waivers to opt out of the healthier school lunch guidelines if they’re struggling financially to meet them. On the same day, the Agriculture Department announced that it would give “new flexibility” to schools by allowing them to serve traditional pasta instead of whole grain for another two years.
The issue has provided plenty of fodder for the GOP in recent months.
In December, Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, of Georgia, ignited a firestorm when he suggested the possibility of requiring schoolchildren to sweep the floors before getting free lunches.
In March, Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012, gave a speech in which he said the federal government was providing “a full stomach and an empty soul” to children who were getting free lunches.
Murray, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the head of the Senate Budget Committee, said she was ready for the financial arguments but that she was banking on support for her hunger bill from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Murray said her plan, called the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act of 2014, wouldn’t increase the federal budget deficit, despite its hefty price tag.
She’s proposing to offset the spending by changing a law that allows U.S. companies to finance expanded operations overseas with debt and then immediately deduct the interest before they report any taxable income. Murray wants to temporarily defer the deductions.
“That’s a fair trade,” Murray said. “It says that companies in our country that are taking advantage of tax loopholes that send jobs overseas ought to be investing in our young kids.”
According to Murray, only 14 percent of the children in the United States who receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year take advantage of a federal summer school food program. The program funds nonprofit groups that serve lunches in congregate settings.
In Washington, only 9.8 percent of eligible students go to the congregate settings, Murray said. The state ranks 38th in participation.
Edwards said her family used the summer lunch programs as much as possible but that mealtimes didn’t always match up with schedules.
Edwards said her $1,100 monthly income came from a combination of child support and government aid. With a subsidized housing voucher, she pays $33 a month for her four-bedroom rental house, but she said household expenses are always rising.
“My water bill is $80 a month, my gas bill is $200 a month, my electricity bill is $45 a month,” said Edwards, adding that she’s “in the middle of a really bad divorce” after being a stay-at-home mom since 2006.
She fretted over the rising cost of meat after paying more than $20 for ground beef and bacon at the grocery store last week. She said her food stamps didn’t cover the cost of meals but that she grew 100 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables last summer, including tomatoes, sweet peas and blueberries.
Now Edwards is hoping members will back Murray’s idea, adding that $150 per child would go a long way.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you’re creative, like we try to be, you can stretch it as far as you can,” Edwards said.