Ensuring children are fed in summer

Schools across Washington state have let out for the summer break, and I know this is the time of year that many students look forward to most. But for many kids who rely on school-provided meals, the summer can be an uncertain time, not knowing when or where they’ll get their next meal. It’s a challenge the Everett Herald editorial board recently wrote about (“Hunger doesn’t take a vacation”).

In our state, 45 percent of students applied for free or reduced price meals in 2013, including 38 percent from Snohomish County. In the summer, without the extra support from school-provided meals, it can be difficult for parents who are already struggling to put enough food on the table.

I’ve heard from one mom in Everett, who 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 she said during the summer, those meals aren’t always enough to prevent her kids’ stomachs from growling.

Children shouldn’t have to spend the summer months wondering when they’ll get their next meal. We must do more to fight summer hunger.

Last month, I introduced a bill called the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act. The bill would use a common-sense strategy to address summer hunger. It would give families a Summer EBT card, which would act like a debit card, with $150 to buy groceries in the summer for each child who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals during the school year.

It’s based on a successful pilot program, which has been proven to decrease hunger by 33 percent. Some of these pilot projects have seen participation rates as high as 90 percent. Not only that, but the program also resulted in kids eating healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, and consuming less sugary beverages.

This pilot program has bipartisan support, with the Republican-led House of Representatives including it in its annual agriculture funding bill this year to match the president’s request. I am currently working to include similar language in the Senate bill.

Scaling up this effective pilot program with the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act would help more children get the nutrition they need. Plus, this bill is fully paid for by closing a wasteful tax loophole that currently encourages U.S. companies to shift jobs and profits offshore.

Right now, we do have a federal summer meals program, which distributes food at congregate meals sites. That program has been very successful in some parts of the country. But nationally, in 2013, it only reached about 15 percent of the students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. For Washington state, just one in 10 of those students participated. In fact, our state ranks 39th in the nation for participation in the summer meals program.

There are some major barriers for all kids to benefit from the current summer meals program. For one, there aren’t enough meals sites to reach all kids, particularly in rural areas. Where the program is available, the family might live too far away from a meals site or transportation might not be available.

Those barriers are something Linn Brooks, who helps organize the summer meals program in Darrington, is very concerned about. I recently met Linn when I visited her community after the devastating mudslide just a few weeks ago. She expects more families will need help putting food on the table this summer, as they continue to cope with the disaster’s aftermath.

She said the program, even before the disaster, had serious limits to the help it can provide, especially because in rural communities, many children and families in Darrington simply can’t make it to the meals site.

Passing this legislation would complement the summer meals program to provide a new, proven option for families who face these barriers.

The threat of hunger doesn’t take a summer break. We shouldn’t either. We must do more to make sure kids across our state and the country get the nutrition they need to learn, grow, and thrive.

Patty Murray is the senior Democratic U.S. senator from Washington.

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