Policy opportunities could help curb child hunger

As our state makes it harder for children to get the nutritious food they need to stay healthy, we have opportunities at the federal level to help improve food security policy for hungry Arkansans.

In the recent legislative session, Arkansas:

  • Refused to lift a barrier that allows families who are eligible to participate in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, to save more money for emergencies or other financial needs.
  • Passed a law to make families jump through more administrative hoops to keep their SNAP benefits. This was over the objections of state agency officials who said it would be overly burdensome for them, as well.
  • Limited the state’s ability to extend SNAP benefits to families who are having trouble meeting work requirements.

Those were on top of burdensome restrictions the Legislature put into place in 2017 and 2019, which you can read more about in this report. These extra barriers that Arkansas lawmakers have chosen to put in place are actually moving our state in the opposite direction of most others. Most states have a higher SNAP asset limit (the amount of assets a family can have and still be eligible). In fact, half the states have no asset limit at all. Though they still have income eligibility requirements, families in those states are allowed to save for emergencies and other family needs – making them more financially secure in the long run. In Arkansas this spring, a good bill by Sen. Jonathan Dismang of Searcy would have raised the limit somewhat in Arkansas – not eliminating it and not even making up for cost-of-living increases over the years – and it still failed to pass.

The Legislature actually piled on more barriers, like requiring families to report even minor and temporary fluctuations in their incomes or risk losing their SNAP benefits. Most states make it easier for families to report income eligibility information, recognizing that children’s nutrition is key to their health, their educations and their futures. For more information about economic and food security policy in the recent state legislation session, you can read our recently released Kids at the Capitol publication. It includes information on how children and families fared in many policy areas.

The good news is that, at the federal level, we’ve seen many improvements in hunger policy over the past year. Unfortunately, a global pandemic necessitated the changes, but with it came a recognition that our food security policy wasn’t adequate for families in crisis. We know that Black and Brown children in our state were disproportionately affected by hunger prior to the pandemic and are also the same communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. They especially need assistance combatting the hunger epidemic. We now have the opportunity to make permanent some of the good changes we’ve made, especially when it comes to child hunger.

Right now, Congress is considering the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which includes changes to school meals; summer and afterschool feeding programs; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program; and much more. Arkansas’s own Sen. John Boozman plays a key leadership role on the committee that oversees this legislation – the Senate Agriculture Committee. He’s the Ranking Member from the minority party, which means he can help steer legislative priorities for the Republican members of the committee. In Arkansas, in the most recent school year, about 310,000 Arkansas schoolchildren (65 percent) were enrolled in the free- or reduced-price lunch program. Because our child poverty rate is one of the nation’s highest, children in Arkansas have the most to gain – or lose – from changes in these policies.

When considering the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, some key decisions will be:

  • Whether to make it easier for schools to participate in the “community eligibility” provision of the federal school meal program. That provision allows schools with about two-thirds of their student body eligible for free or reduced-price meals to simply make all students eligible. They’re reimbursed by the federal government for the expense, and proposed changes would make the reimbursement more generous, so more high-poverty districts could participate.
  • Whether and how to build upon the success of the Pandemic and Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program. In spring 2020, when schools closed for the pandemic, many students went hungry without their school-day meals. Federal pandemic legislation created the Pandemic EBT program, which sent the equivalent of a SNAP card to families to allow them to buy groceries to make up for those lost meals. This summer, families are again receiving those benefits for meals that may have been missed when schools close for the summer. We hope Congress will make that a permanent policy.

Members of Congress have a lot to consider in the coming months – decisions that could make the difference between children going hungry and having enough to eat. Senator Boozman is to be commended for putting forward a bipartisan piece of legislation that has support from anti-hunger agencies at the state and federal level. You can read more about that here.

In 2023, Congress will consider reauthorization of the SNAP program. It’s not too early to begin considering how we can eliminate some of the unnecessary barriers that Arkansas has created for hungry families. If Arkansas policymakers won’t do it, maybe Members of Congress will.