23 Jul

Congress gets another chance to take a bite out of child hunger

HILLSBORO – Wearing their green smocks for finger-painting, the eight toddlers sat around the table, like a committee called to order.

To Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., the scene must have looked at least a little familiar.

Bonamici’s visit to Heaven Sent infants and toddler care last week was a small part – OK, eight small parts – of a very large process. Working its way through her House Education Committee is the five-year reauthorization of all federal child nutrition programs, including school lunches (and breakfasts and snacks) for tens of millions of kids; the Women, Infants and Children program for pregnant women and preschool children; summer food efforts; and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which helps put food on the low-lying table after the smocks come off and 80 fingers are carefully washed.

The federal government feeds more kids than the entire fast-food business, and actually uses vegetables. For millions of kids, the meals they get in school – or in child care, or in a summer lunch program – are likely to be the most nutritious ones they get all day.

There’s a particular interest to this year’s reauthorization, because in 2008, Barack Obama pledged to end child hunger in America by 2015. We don’t seem to have made it.

“Progress has been moderate,” assesses James Weill, president of the D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, but he says he understands why the pledge had problems: “At the time they made it, they had no concept of the economic nightmare that was about to befall them.” The annual Annie E. Casey Foundation “Kids Count” report released Tuesday found that children had not recovered from the Great Recession, and that a higher percentage of Oregon kids were living in high-poverty areas than in 2007.

Still, there has been some progress; more kids are eating breakfast in school, there’s been some growth in the summer food programs, and we’ve raised the nutritional levels of school food and WIC. But the most recent three-year surveys from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released last August, found 15 million American kids classed as “food insecure,” meaning they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from.

In Oregon, what we consider as progress is that we no longer lead the nation in child hunger. In the USDA’s latest numbers, 25.9 percent of Oregon kids, or more than 223,000, are classified as “food-insecure,” putting us in 13th place nationally, mostly behind states where the staff of life is grits. The Oregon Food Bank reports that 92,000 Oregon kids a month are fed in food pantries.

The five-year reauthorization is a chance to do something about this, although House Education Committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn., has declared that no more money is going into the programs.

This round, hunger advocates are looking to expand food efforts in summer, when the schools that feed tens of millions of kids lunch, and increasingly breakfast, are closed. Twenty-two million kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch during the year, and only 4 million get summer food.

“Summer,” says Lucy Melcher, director of advocacy for Share Our Strength and No Kid Hungry, “is still the hungriest time.”
Advocates have several strategies to nourish the season. The summer food program can be streamlined. It also requires kids to come to a specific place for food, a problem for rural kids. Oregon’s highest child food insecurity rates are in rural counties, which have limited options; Lake County, for example, doesn’t have a single summer lunch location.

There are proposals to allow parents to pick up food for their kids once a week. There’s also a plan to provide assisted-lunch kids with $150 in food stamps over the summer, an approach successfully pilot-tested in Oregon and five other states last year. Bonamici is co-sponsoring a bill to expand the program.

Heaven Sent infant and toddler care is religiously based, with worship in the afternoon. And because this is Portlandia, it’s also vegetarian organic – “That’s a big selling point for my families,” explains owner Christina Folsom – feeding its kids lentil Sloppy Joes and tofu hot dogs.

There isn’t a huge federal investment in nutrition here – for kids who don’t qualify as low income, the feds put up (with a lot of paperwork) 20 cents for the afternoon snack – but the question of how millions of kids preparing for school are being fed seems a reasonable point of national interest.

“That’s why I’m looking at this,” said Bonamici, “because nobody else is.”

Because feeding kids is a pretty good investment.

That’s clear even in finger paint.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 7/22/15.