In early October,  grassroots advocates from the Community Voices: Why Nutrition Assistance Matters coalition visited Capitol Hill and shared their personal stories of struggle and triumph and the importance of federal nutrition programs in helping them provide for their family’s basic needs and rise out of poverty.

These nutrition programs are by no means a luxury; instead, they help to alleviate the burden of having to choose between providing food for their children or paying their bills.

Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC), the school lunch program, and the summer meals program are often time a child’s only source of food in families who are fighting to survive.  In fact, 53 million children get much of their daily nutrition (half of their daily calories, for many kids) at school. With one in five children at risk of hunger, it is important to understand the short and short and long term consequences of this issue. Hungry children have difficulty learning and paying attention in school, can experience health issues, and may experience developmental delays in multiple areas. Simply put, hunger prevents children from reaching their full potential.

The summer months can be particularly difficult for families who rely on meals during the school year to meet their child’s nutritional needs.  Summer meal programs have the potential to assist these very needy families, however, the participants noted that these programs are difficult access. Unless kids can walk to the meal sites, many children are unable attend due to working parents or lack of transportation.

Safety was noted as an issue to accessing the sites as the parents noted that they are not comfortable letting their child walk or travel alone in their neighborhoods due to crime and violence. Expanding the summer meal program and increasing program resources have the potential to bridge the gap between the 20 million children who are on free or reduced lunch and the 3 million children currently being served by the summer meal program.

Statistics aside, these women put a face to the looming reality of food insecurity and inadequate nutrition in our nation and demonstrate the successes that these programs have afforded their families.

Robin Eberlein noted that she began using nutrition assistance programs when she left an abusive relationship. She believes that these programs were integral in allowing her to live on her own and provide for her children. She stated, “I can’t tell you where my children and I might have been if it weren’t for those programs….I was able to set an example for them and be a positive role model.“ Now, she notes that her adult children have thriving careers.

In discussing the importance of these programs to her children, Vivian Thorp, a single mother of three daughters said, “They would have gotten sucked into a system that they didn’t belong in,” and referenced that they may have had poor health, not been able to concentrate in school, become delinquent, among many others. She noted that her children are now doing well and one of her daughters is near finishing a bachelor’s degree in the STEM field. When discussing her family and other families in similar situations, Thorp mentioned that nutrition programs “aid in balancing out what we need.”

Asia Thompson, a young woman with two children discussed her experiences with homelessness when her children were infants. She noted, “WIC for me was truly a safety net.” The WIC program provided her with a breast pump in order to provide her premature infant with the essential nutrients needed to develop and grow. Thompson and her children also benefited from other nutrition programs and she shared how her children’s physical and mental health improved when she was able to provide adequate food for them.  She said, “My kids would not be where they are today and as successful if it weren’t for those programs.” Now, Thompson is a student at Misericordia University and part of the Women With Children Program that assists economically disadvantaged mothers in obtaining a bachelor’s degree by providing housing and other supports for mothers and their children.

Despite the successes that nutrition programs have offered the participants, they noted many obstacles to accessing benefits, from immense amounts of paperwork to strict eligibility requirements.

When asked what they would say in support of these nutrition programs to their Senator or Representative if they were to meet them in the hallway, Thompson replied, “It shouldn’t be about the money, it should be about the kids, the starving people across America……When is it ever okay for a child to be starving? It’s not.”

When we invest in child nutrition programs we are not only investing in the future of our children, but the future of our country. Congress must continue to support this extension of child nutrition programs and find ways to limit barriers to investing our nation’s greatest potential.

How federal nutrition programs change lives: v/ @First_Focus #InvestInKids
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