Notes from Susan: American Children Going Hungry during Coronavirus

By Susan MacLaury

I was speaking to our son, Alex, the other night. He’s a research analyst at 32BJ, a local NYC union that’s a part of SEIU, the Service Employees International Union. He described a conversation he’d had a few days earlier with a cafeteria worker at a West Orange, NJ school. She told him she was friendly with many of the students and had learned that several of them rarely had enough to eat over the weekends. This probably comes as no surprise to many teachers and school administrators already struggling to help.

In the US, approximately 22 million kids get free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, thanks to funding from the National School Lunch program, according to Business Insider. (Unfortunately, for various reasons, this number drops to only 4 million over the summer, despite efforts by the USDA, which funds the Summer Food Service Program that allows meal delivery sites to be set up around the country.)

The fact that so many kids come to school hungry every day is fairly well known. No Kid Hungry, a national advocacy organization, reports that 76% of public school teachers work with students coming to school hungry on a regular basis. Indeed, they try to intervene personally. The average US teacher spends $300 a year of his/her own money buying food for students. And students and teachers alike attest to the fact that kids feel and perform far better when they’re well fed. Seventy-three percent of teachers say kids pay better attention and 77% of kids say school meals help them feel better physically, pay attention more, and perform better academically.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, many of us are spending a tremendous amount of time watching health reports on the news. As we know, one of its greatest impacts has been the closing of thousands of schools across the country. And one of the immediate concerns of educators and legislators alike has been not only the disruption to learning these closings will cause, but also the number of kids normally in school programs providing free or reduced breakfasts and lunches who will go hungry.

Over the weekend the House of Representatives, with strong support from 140 Republican members, voted to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that – among other measures – provides for the distribution of lunches at non-school sites. This was already being made available by the USDA using waivers on a state-by-state basis. The Families First act expands that program – Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). It now goes to the Senate for confirmation. The bill was passed by President Trump and indeed provides relief but not as much as is needed as SNAP centers are not found in all districts.

The problem of child hunger is not unknown to the media. In 1968, CBS News produced a documentary called Hunger in America. Much more recently, in 2013, top Chef judge Tom Colicchio partnered with his wife, Lori Silverbush, and Kristi Jacobson, to make A Place at the Table, a documentary updating the urgency of the problem. And local news shows report on this issue with reliable consistency.

Thus, we cannot claim ignorance of the problem, and we certainly can’t use it as an excuse not to act. The problem clearly goes much deeper than the band aid this legislation will provide. We are in an election year, poised to work for far more fundamental legislative change that can create a safety net for America’s neediest families. Let’s all find out all that we can and vote our support for those who need it the most.