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Opinion: Commentary: Trying To Help Hungry Children
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Opinion: Commentary: Trying To Help Hungry Children

As we approach the mid-point of the 2019 Virginia General Assembly Session, debates about tax plans and economic incentive programs are still happening. While this is all ongoing and bills are heard in committees, the Appropriations Committee has been hearing member budget requests for the current and next fiscal year. One of the requests I have put in (Item 340 #4h) would allow TANF Funds to be used in a program that would help feed low income children during the summer months.

This is an issue that has been close to my heart since I first ran for office. As someone who experienced homelessness as a teenager, one of the things that I look at when making decisions on public policy is whether funds could be better used to help children meet their basic needs. And let’s face the real fact that there are still 571,712 children who qualify for free or reduced lunch right here in the Commonwealth.

TANF for Summer Food Assistance for Low-Income Children (Item 340 #4h) would provide funds to the Department of Social Services through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant to provide a summer EBT benefit of $150 to low-income children who participate in the free or reduced price National School Lunch Program during the school year and live in a community with zero or only one Summer Food Service Program site.

Benefits would be provided in $50 installments for the months of June, July and August to ensure that more children have the consistent nutrition they need to stay healthy and return to school ready to learn.

We are fortunate in Alexandria that there are many programs that help cover the gaps for families that need food assistance. However, most places in Virginia are not as lucky as our community. When children get consistent nutrition during the summer months, it helps fight against summer weight gain and summer learning loss. Children are better able to start the school year healthy and ready to learn.

Food insecurity is a problem year-round, but it gets worse during the summer months when schools are closed and children lose access to school meals. The national summer meals program is designed to connect kids to the nutrition they need when school is out of session by providing meals in places like schools, libraries and parks. The program, however, meets only a fraction of the need. Currently, the Summer Food Service Program serves less than 15 percent of the children who get free or reduced-price school lunch because it only operates in high poverty communities and it requires children to eat in a supervised, gathered setting. Due to the nature of the program, it is not effective in rural or suburban communities.

When kids consistently get the nutrition they need, they are better able to break the cycle of poverty and grow up strong. When families get the nutrition they need through programs like the one I propose, fewer face food insecurity, which leads to a reduction in the health care costs associated with hunger.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established a pilot program called Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (or Summer EBT) to better reach low-income children with the nutrition they need during the summer months. This program, which is the model for TANF for Summer Food Assistance for Low-Income Children in Virginia, was efficient and effective. Among children participating in the Summer EBT pilot programs, the prevalence of the most severe food insecurity decreased by one-third.

The Virginia program could reach more than 50,000 children according to information from the No Kid Hungry Virginia Campaign, a not for profit dedicated to creating public-private partnerships with state, federal, non-profit and private resources across Virginia. Together with the Virginia Department of Education and community partners, their goal is to end child hunger in the Commonwealth. A goal we all share as we fight for Virginia’s families. One of the next steps in doing so is combating summer hunger.

Charniele Herring represents Alexandria City’s 46th District in the Virginia General Assembly where she serves as House Minority Caucus Chair and on the Courts of Justice, Counties, Cities, & Towns, and Agriculture, Chesapeake & Natural Resources Committees. Follow her online at www.charnieleherring.com.