Boozman, Leahy Introduce Bill to Make Summer Meal Programs More Flexible

WASHINGTON—bipartisan group of senators are proposing to apply lessons learned from the pandemic to existing child nutrition programs to make them more efficient, flexible and better equipped to reach children in need during the summer months.

Senators John Boozman (R-AR) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act to add flexibility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which offers children free lunch and snacks in the summer.

The bill gives states additional options to reach hungry children in communities without a centralized feeding site during the summer, some of which mirror authorities Congress established to help the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) carry out this mission while students received instruction virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Current summer meals regulations require children to travel to a central location and eat together. This works well in some communities. However, in rural areas, it can be difficult for children to reach a site, if one even exists. In suburban and urban areas, inclement weather or violence can keep children from these sites and cause them to miss meals.

The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act proposes two alternative options states can utilize through the program. The first would allow for meals to be consumed off-site through innovative means like mobile feeding and backpack meal programs. The other option would authorize the summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program which would provide eligible families $30 per summer month per child to purchase eligible food items from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) approved retailers. In USDA pilot programs, summer EBT was shown to reduce child hunger by over 30 percent.

The summer meals program is in desperate need of an update as many of the rules date back to the 1960s. The one-size-fits-all solution is simply unworkable under normal conditions, much less during periods of stress like what we experienced over the past yearThe flexibilities Congress granted during the pandemic offer a good recipe for how to successfully serve more children in need. We want to ensure that all options—from off-site, grab-and-go models, to home delivery, to electronic benefits transfer—remain on the table,” said Boozmanwho serves as ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

“This pandemic has taught us so much about the importance of expanding access and increasing flexibility for children to receive meals in non-traditional settings. The summer shouldn’t be a time where children, particularly in rural areas, struggle to find their next meal. This bill would implement many of the lessons learned during the pandemic to allow states to better meet the nutrition needs of their communities and ensure that no child goes hungry during the summer months,” Leahy said.

Similar steps taken during the pandemic to reduce exposure risks for COVID-19 proved quite successful in maximizing participation. For instance, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act authorized nationwide waivers allowing off-site meal distribution to a parent or guardian to take home to their children. Additionally, the Pandemic EBT program is essentially the same approach this bill proposes for families to use during the summer. 

Along with Boozman and Leahy, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), John Hoeven (R-ND), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and John Thune (R-SD) all joined in introducing the bill.

The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act has the support of leading national advocacy groups including Feeding America, Share Our Strength, Tusk Philanthropies, Bread for the World, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Alliance to End Hunger and Save the Children.