School meal programs are defense against child hunger

Cincinnati Enquirer

When he was campaigning for re-election in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt took time in Boston to talk about the country's school lunch program. FDR said, "Milk does those children more good than political soothing syrup."

As we celebrate National School Lunch Week, it should be a call to action to our political leaders to put aside partisanship and support child nutrition. It could not be more urgent. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 16 million children in the U.S. live in food-insecure households. Families are struggling to get food on the shelves.

Our national school lunch and breakfast programs, which provide free or reduced-price meals, serve as a critical line of defense against child hunger. Cincinnati, with the Children's Hunger Alliance and USDA, has set a great example by providing free breakfast for all its public school students K-12.

But when school is out, children living in poverty, especially during these tough economic times, are vulnerable. The charity Feeding America supports school pantries which allow needy families to get take-home rations to fill in these gaps when schools are closed.

Jennifer Small of the Maryland Food Bank is working to establish such pantries in the Eastern shore of her state. The demand for food assistance there has grown.

Small says, "It is so important to ensure children are fed so they can thrive in school. By assisting them and their families with take-home rations for dinners and/or weekend meals, this helps keep them fed so they can concentrate and receive a well-rounded nutritional meal."

An area of huge glaring weakness is the summer feeding program. Many children who get free or reduced-price meals during the school year are unable to access them in the summer. The problem is how to distribute the food when schools are closed.

This is an area where political and community leaders need to work together so that when next summer comes, food assistance does not take a vacation. Hunger certainly does not take the summer off.

Feeding America reports, "During the 2010 federal fiscal year, 20.6 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. Unfortunately, just 2.3 million of these same income-eligible children participated in the Summer Food Service Program that same year."

USDA says it is testing "home delivery of meals and a backpack food program for kids on days" when the summer feeding program is not available. Political leaders can encourage community-based solutions to summer feeding. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has been very active in this regard.

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