Congress Leaves Kids Hungry in Order to Feed Them

It's been a summer of false choices in Washington--pitting one vital need for struggling families against another.

By Seth Freed Wessler Aug 17, 2010

Before Congress went on summer break, the Senate approved $4.5 billion for child nutrition programs over the next decade–that’s a good thing. But to find the money, our Senators have once again stuck a tap in food stamps. If the House approves the Senate bill when it returns from summer vacation, Congress will have funded one anti-hunger program by de-funding another, in effect making kids hungrier.

The Senate’s bill is a vital investment in school lunch and healthy foods initiatives. It will help provide healthy food to millions of children who might otherwise go without. As Michelle Obama, who has spearheaded the effort to fund the program, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

To start, the bill will make it easier for the tens of millions of children who participate in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program — and many others who are eligible but not enrolled — to get the nutritious meals they need to do their best. It will set higher nutritional standards for school meals.

But the Senate’s decision to dig back into food stamp funding flies in the face of these intentions by making it even harder for families to feed themselves at all, let a lone nutritionally.

If passed, it will be the second time this summer that Congress has funneled money out of the food stamp program to pay for other supports that struggling families rely on everyday. Last week, the House returned from vacation for a day to pass a jobs bill, saving as many as 160,000 public school teachers from getting pink slips. The bill was paid for with money taken out of the food stamp program, even as a record 41 million people now rely on their EBT cards to eat. For the first time ever, families will see their food stamp benefits actually fall when the cut goes into effect in 2014.

Legislators justified the pillage by arguing that they’re really just returning food stamp funding to the level it was at before it got an injection of stimulus dollars. But the losses will be real–$60 a month for a family of four. And additional cuts to pay for the child nutrition bill would hasten the benefit reduction. Families are facing a devastating fall.

Several House Democrats have vowed to restore the food stamp cuts, and now many are similarly pushing back on the child nutrition bill funding scheme. In a letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 106 House Democrats wrote:

[W]e are now forced to choose between jobs and health care or food for hungry people…This is one of the more egregious cases of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and is a vote we do not take lightly.

The letter asks Pelosi bring to the floor a different child nutrition bill, introduced earlier in the session by California Rep. George Miller. That bill, which would actually provide more funding than the Senate version, has not yet attached any offsets and would not chop food stamps. But the Senate will have to approve the House version and, with it’s current level of dysfunction, that is unlikely.

And so the madness continues. As the director an anti-hunger group in New York told me last week: "They’ve accepted that you either cut off the left arm or you cut off the right arm. These are false choices we don’t have to accept."