Kids Need Congress to Build Back Better
As schools across the country struggle to navigate the relentlessly shifting demands of the pandemic there is at least one bright spot. A rare combination of Congressional common sense and investments in families during this dual health and economic crisis has protected America’s children from hunger and hardship. Paired with local leadership and philanthropy, it’s a recipe that has ensured COVID would not prevent kids from getting the food and nutrition they need.
For example, when Rockdale County Public Schools, 25 miles east of Atlanta, Georgia, committed to the unprecedented step of door-to-door meal delivery for every child in the school system back in March of 2020, it was the beginning of a heroic effort on the part of the school district’s administrators, school nutrition personnel, and bus drivers. It meant that kids who rely on school meals would continue to get them even while their schools were closed.
“The challenge that came front and center was that if we have to be away from school, how are we going to marshal all of our resources so that if there was one thing students could be certain of, it as their food security,” Dr Terry Oates, Superintendent of Rockdale Schools, shared recently for a new micro-documentary for No Kid Hungry.
Transportation director Dwight Spencer added, “I’m thinking we’re going to do maybe four buses. But Peggy Lawrence, the director of school nutrition, goes ‘no wait a minute, I don’t mean that we’re going to feed hundreds of kids, we’re going to feed every single kid.’ That kind of blew me away.”
But there were more than big hearts and determined local leadership at work. There was also a transformational shift in public policy, long advocated and finally accelerated by the dire needs of the pandemic.
Specifically, Congress enacted waivers and flexibilities that, for the first time, permitted schools to continue to be reimbursed for meals provided through the school lunch and school breakfast programs even if those meals were not provided in school, were delivered to a parent instead of a child and were delivered in quantities of 10-15 instead of one at a time.
Rockdale is just one of thousands of school districts that were also able to achieve resilience and results thanks to this potent combination of policy and philanthropy.
Three factors made a difference in common sense prevailing over the usual political squabbling.
First, Congress listened to what local leaders said they needed. Solutions came from the bottom up as well as from federal policymakers. Once ideas that were driven by the communities most affected were given a chance, the result was a win-win for all.
Second, public dollars were used to do what they do best: help scale programs that work, and private dollars were used to do what they do best: fill in the gaps to cover costs that government can’t. School meals were reimbursed but philanthropic dollars were needed to cover equipment, staffing, technical assistance, and awareness. Together, they got the job done.
Third, bipartisanship yields results. Congressional actions in the earliest days of the pandemic – swift, urgent, bipartisan and sweeping – is a window into what commonsense, results-oriented legislating could look like.
The outcome? Despite great economic hardship brought on by the global pandemic in 2020, household food insecurity remained unchanged in the U.S., a dramatically different result than that of the Great Recession of 2008, during which food insecurity rates skyrocketed and took nearly a decade to return to pre-recession rates. And, although the child poverty rate increased in 2020, without the assistance passed last year by Congress, many more children would have slipped into poverty.
But the levers pulled so successfully this time are only temporary.
If policymakers have the wisdom to extend or make permanent the actions they took, Americans can have the peace of mind that their kids will have the supports they need, not just during the pandemic but in the rebuilding after.
The good news is there’s an opportunity for Congress to do this right now. The Build Back Better plan in front of Congress today has the ability to create true transformational change for millions of kids across the country.
There will undoubtedly be a long road ahead before this bill makes it across the finish line. But if we could ensure COVID did not prevent kids from getting the food and nutrition they needed last year, politics certainly shouldn’t get in the way this year.
Billy Shore is the founder and executive chair of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to solve problems of hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world. The organization’s No Kid Hungry campaign is working in the United States to end childhood hunger by helping launch and improve programs that give all kids the healthy food they need to thrive.