Playing our part in a community food pyramid

Healthy children are a cornerstone of thriving communities. Likewise, communities where children live have important effects on their well-being – both now and in the future. To grow up smart and strong, children need environments that include fresh and nutritious food.

School meal programs and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) help ensure that all children are well-nourished and can grow up healthy and ready to contribute to our future prosperity. These programs bolster child development by providing needed nutrition and maintaining reliable access to food – even when school is out.

In the District, about 76,000 families relied on monthly SNAP support in fiscal year 2011, and 72% of public school children were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. Potential erosion of these programs, through federal funding cuts, limits on eligibility or even low uptake can limit healthy child development and make our city’s collective future less bright.

Now that school is out, school meal programs continue to serve lunches and snacks through the summer months, but many children in D.C. may not be getting the summer meals they need. Though D.C. does well in providing summer meals to eligible children when compared to the nation, two-year trends show that uptake on summer meals is not going in the right direction. D.C. served 2,000 fewer children in 2011, an 8% decrease from the previous year. In D.C. about 73% of eligible D.C. children received summer meals in July 2011, according to a new report from the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC) and its local affiliate, D.C. Hunger Solutions. The summer meals program is not reaching as far as it could, and local communities need to help ensure that eligible children have access to healthy lunches and snacks.

National legislative changes under debate may have repercussions for healthy children and communities in D.C. and across the country. This summer Congress is working on a new “farm bill,” which funds nutrition programs, and negotiations over the past weeks have revealed the potential for large cuts that would affect food benefits and other assistance. The farm bill passed by the Senate in June preserved SNAP’s structure but included cuts of $450 million per year to “heat and eat” assistance, which coordinates family benefits for SNAP and low-income energy assistance programs. The House bill would slice four times as much from SNAP – $1.6 billion a year – and the cuts would hit monthly food benefits. Leaders in the House and Senate have until September 30 to work out a final bill, which seems likely to contain large cuts to food benefits.

SNAP enrollment has grown during recent years (both locally and nationally), due to a combination of factors, including eligibility expansions and growing need caused by the recession and slow recovery. It remains a support for families in getting basic assistance and, like the school meals program, ensuring that children have access to the food they need. Large cuts at the national level could mean that children see smaller SNAP benefits at home, resulting in tightened access to nutritious food and compromised healthy opportunities.

Communities can do their part to ensure that children receive healthy meals during the summer, by sharing information about the program and location of summer meal sites. FRAC has a summer food site locator with listings by ZIP code. Families can also call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-Hungry or 1-877-8-HAMBRE to find a site near home. We count on representatives in Congress to do their part, as well. Helping produce smart, strong children includes keeping SNAP as a mainstay for healthy communities – and is up to all of us.

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