Leaders can help address hunger

Published 6:04 pm Friday, October 29, 2021

By Sarah Steely

Despite nearly two years of navigating a global pandemic and ongoing economic crisis, national efforts to ensure that people are getting enough to eat have been largely successful. According to the latest report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the national food insecurity rate remained virtually unchanged between 2019 and 2020.

This is strong evidence that federal nutrition programs are making an impact. Even so, other findings within the analysis highlight the fact that there’s more work to be done, especially for families of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.

While food insecurity remained unchanged overall, Black and Hispanic households experiencing hunger increased. According to the findings, 1 in 4 Black families navigated food insecurity in 2020, an 18% increase compared to the previous year. Even more dramatic, hunger among Latino families rose by 28% with more than 1 in 5 Hispanic households facing food shortages.

These disparities are deeply troubling. Hunger impacts children’s ability to learn — something we cannot afford when many students already face steep learning loss from time out of the classroom, and Black, Latino and low-income students saw the steepest learning loss of all, exacerbating existing racial and economic inequities.

This month, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that all of Virginia’s 132 school divisions are now open for full-time, in-person instruction. We know students learn best in a classroom; we also know connecting youth with meals helps them focus and succeed academically.

Through the Build Back Better plan, Congress can help students make up for lost learning by expanding the Community Eligibility Provision, which makes it easier for schools to feed kids by allowing them to provide breakfast and lunch at no cost to all students. Widening the criteria would mean approximately 300,000 additional Virginia students could access no-cost meals.

We also know childhood hunger doesn’t take a break when school is out of session. A variety of barriers such as transportation, severe weather and scheduling complications means summer meals programs reach only about 1 in 7 eligible Virginia students. An expansion of Summer EBT would provide an important summertime grocery benefit for eligible families that would help supplement the cost of food when school is out for summer, helping more than 590,000 kids in Virginia get the nutrition they need when schools are closed.

Meanwhile, the enhanced Child Tax Credit is lifting millions of American children out of poverty by helping families afford essential items like rent, food, diapers and shoes. Failing to extend it would be devastating for the half-million kids in Virginia who previously didn’t qualify because their family incomes were too low — these are the families most in need of the benefit.

I’m incredibly grateful for the school nutrition teams and community organizations who are continuing to do incredible work to address food insecurity. But the reality is, beyond big hearts and determined local leadership, we need a transformational shift in public policy. Passing the Build Back Better plan with child nutrition priorities is essential to making strides towards educational equity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated deep, systemic inequities across our society, but it has also highlighted policy solutions that are effectively supporting our most vulnerable communities. As we emerge from the pandemic, now is the time to raise our voices and increase support for families in Virginia or across the country.

Right now, Congress has a critical opportunity to chart a path toward an equitable recovery by extending or making permanent the nutrition programs and policies proven effective during this crisis, which will remain vital to our country’s most vulnerable children and their families.

If we hope to create a world where all children, no matter their racial or ethnic background, have the opportunity to lead healthy lives, the first step is nutrition. As the budget Build Back Better Act is finalized, Rep. Scott and congressional leadership have a timely opportunity to incorporate lessons learned and build back even stronger for Virginia’s children.

Sarah Steely is Director of No Kid Hungry Virginia, a public-private coalition working to ensure no kid will grow up hungry in Virginia.