The thought of a hungry child moves all of us to want to help. Alabamians are among the most generous people in the nation. We give generously to charities fighting childhood hunger, including food banks and food closets from which local agencies and churches distribute food to hungry families.
But despite our generous communities and an improving economy, a recent study still found that one in five households in Alabama struggle to buy enough food for themselves and their families – a challenge known as food hardship. Alabama ranked fourth in the nation for food hardship, according to data collected by Gallup and reported by the Food Research and Action Center. Among Alabama families with children, 22 percent faced this challenge.
Hunger can hide anywhere: a senior on a fixed income living next door, or parents in your own neighborhood who skip meals to protect their children from hunger. And hunger rates, which had been declining in Alabama and nationally since the end of the Great Recession, are now creeping up again. Wages have stagnated, many workers remain stuck in part-time jobs that don’t pay enough to feed families, and the safety net that protects low-income families is under increasing attack.
Alabama’s high hunger rate hurts children across the state. Research has found that adults who received food assistance as children had better health and educational achievement on average than adults who grew up in households that were eligible for assistance but did not receive it. Children who eat meals at school perform better in the classroom than those who do not. They solve math problems more quickly and with fewer errors, have better school attendance and record fewer office referrals.
We know there are policy solutions to hunger that work. The most important of these solutions are the federal nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), school meals and WIC. Unfortunately, both the Alabama Legislature and Congress have recently considered legislation that would cut nutrition assistance and make it harder for people to get needed help.
Congress is working to reauthorize a Farm Bill that includes both SNAP and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which provides food to those in need of short-term hunger relief. Earlier this summer, Alabama’s U.S. senators, Doug Jones and Richard Shelby, both helped pass a bipartisan version of the Farm Bill that would protect nutrition assistance. Unfortunately, the House version of the Farm Bill proposes to cut SNAP benefits by $20 billion over 10 years.
We strongly urge the Alabama congressional delegation to support a final Farm Bill that protects SNAP benefits, especially for families with children, and TEFAP, an important source of emergency food assistance.
Another important way to help hungry families in Alabama is by maintaining a strong school meals program, during both the school year and the summer break. That would help children stay ready to learn and get the nutrition they need to grow and succeed. Important steps toward that goal include:
· Community eligibility, which provides free meals to all students in schools where a large percentage of children live in low-income households.
· Breakfast served when children have time to eat, often during first period.
· Late-afternoon meals for children who stay for after-school programs.
· An expanded summer meals program, reaching the poorest counties in the state.
Alabama has many accomplishments to take pride in, but the fourth highest hunger rate in the nation is not one of them. By acting now to ensure families can access critical food assistance, we can ensure that the next time Gallup asks if there have been “times you didn’t have the money to buy the food that your family needs,” far fewer Alabamians will have to answer “yes.”
Laura Lester is executive director of the Alabama Food Bank Association, which assists the food bank network in obtaining more food and funds, fosters public awareness of food banks’ mission and creates partnerships to alleviate hunger in Alabama. Email: email@example.com.
Carol Gundlach is a policy analyst for Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.