Fighting Child Hunger in the Obama Administration’s Final Year

In a recent announcement that frames priorities for the Obama Administration’s final year, the White House unveiled two new initiatives to prevent child hunger. Working to address food insecurity is one of many actions this administration has taken to combat poverty over the past seven years. 

These expansive changes in the way federal programs target child hunger are part of the Obama Administration’s broader goal of expanding opportunity and improving family conditions across the nation. After all, child hunger reduces energy and increases stress, making it one of the most obvious barriers to success for children’s immediate health and their long-term stability. Ensuring that children have the necessary food to learn and develop is paramount for a stable, supportive life.

The president’s new investment will focus on the two largest U.S. programs that aim to fight food insecurity: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The school lunch program is a USDA program that has ensured consistent and nutritious food throughout the academic year to 22 million children from low-income families since 1943. Free and reduced-price lunches ensure that students have the food they need to learn and grow. SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps, is a core nutritional and anti-poverty program for U.S. families. In 2014, SNAP lifted approximately 4.7 million Americans out of poverty, with 2.1 million of these beneficiaries being children. The proposed investments will attempt to close gaps in children’s food access by combining the NSLP with some SNAP benefits. Together, SNAP and the school lunch program are a logical combination to better target child hunger.

Even with these federal programs, many children and families still suffer from hunger. The White House Council of Economic Advisors found that, in 2014, about 1 in 7 households and about 15 million children experienced food insecurity. Lack of school lunches during the summer months and general administrative barriers to registering eligible children for food benefits are significant contributors to this persistent food insecurity. President Obama’s proposal expands SNAP and the school lunch program with the goal of eliminating these gaps in children’s access to food.

Here are a few highlights of the two proposed federal actions:

  1. Ensuring year round access to food. With a sneak peak into the president’s FY 2017 budget, the White House says that the president is asking for $12 billion over ten years that will target summer food insecurity with a permanent Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) program. The school lunch program provides students with food during the academic year, but only a fraction of these 22 million children receive food benefits during the summer months. Research shows that the summer months can already be difficult for children from low-income families who are likely to lose two to three months of reading skills in addition to some math skills over the summer. But this “summer slide” goes beyond an academic disadvantage to also hinder children’s nutritional health and access to food. The proposed Summer EBT program would allow students who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches to also receive Summer EBT benefits, which would amount to $45 monthly per child during the summer. This small monthly benefit can only be used to purchase food at grocery stores and would supplement existing programs that target food insecurity.

    Pilot Summer EBT programs began in 2011 and evaluations found the initiative to improve children’s nutrition and reduce food insecurity during the summer break. Throughout summer 2011 and summer 2012, five states implemented the summer EBT approaches to a total of 51,000 households and 100,000 children. Of most note from these pilot programs is that the summer EBT benefits prevented the most severe form of food insecurity among children by one-third. The evaluations also found that the summer programs improved family health by allowing participants to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Estimates indicate that 20 million children could receive Summer EBT by 2026 if all states offered the program.

  2. Using Medicaid data to automatically link students to school lunch programs. The president hopes to make the school lunch program more accessible so that all eligible students actually receive their benefits. Currently, families must submit an enrollment application to participate in the school lunch program even if they are already participating in other government assistance programs. This is time-consuming for parents and costly for schools, which results in many eligible children not being enrolled in the school lunch program. The president’s plan allows states to use Medicaid data to directly certify students for the school lunch program. The USDA will pilot this program with five states during the 2016-2017 school year, with goals of expanding the direct certification to 20 states over the next three school years.

This proposal is limited in its demands but extensive in its benefits. Coordinating data between social programs is an intuitive policy because it minimizes the costs that agencies incur when they independently collect, register, and manage data. The coordination between Medicaid and the school lunch program, two programs that serve similar segments of the population, will likely increase the number of children who receive the food that they need. Such a small policy change could have huge impacts on the millions of children who would become eligible for school lunches using the direct certification method.

A final component of the president’s proposed initiatives to prevent child hunger is an emphasis on continuing to improve SNAP data and research. A recent report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) indicates that SNAP reduces both poverty and food insecurity. Continued efforts to understand SNAP’s role in the anti-poverty campaign will be emphasized in the near future.

Even with extensive evidence supporting SNAP and the school lunch program’s mitigation of child food insecurity, the Obama Administration’s proposal will still face political volatility while being reviewed by a Congress keen on cutting spending. The pilot programs for the direct certification of benefits will be issued by executive action, although there is still room for opposition to their enactment. More difficult to pass, though, will be the budget item of $12 billion over ten years, a contentious figure to approve in the current partisan political climate.

The Obama Administration’s initiative does have one important point of political potential; that is, the morally righteous cause of feeding hungry children. Opposition against a children’s program, especially one that is proven to be successful, would be hard to justify."

Author:

Olivia Barrow is an intern with New America's Family-Centered Social Policy Program. She is working on a Master of Public Administration at the George Washington University.