The entire world is undoubtedly going through one of the most challenging and unprecedented times our country has ever faced. Amidst all this, there is an increase in questions on how relief funds will be spent to progress the racial justice movement, aid the unemployed and keep our families healthy, especially kids.
Kelsey Perdue, the League’s Kids Count Project Director, had this conversation over a Facebook Live discussion with two experts on food access: League analyst Julie Cassidy and Kaitlin Skwir from the Food Bank Council of Michigan. From the list of policy and impact items brought up, the bottom line remained clear: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is crucial to Michigan families during COVID-19 and beyond. It is imperative that the U.S. Congress increase SNAP benefits during this time and continue flexibilities even after the pandemic ends.
Kids were at the forefront of this conversation because, as their brains and bodies rapidly develop, a lack of enough nutritious food has an immediate impact on them. As Michiganders, we need to do what we can to ensure they’re not being left out of the state’s health funding decisions, and that includes ensuring food security.
“COVID has really unearthed what was already existing: the inequities in our society, the fact that people are struggling,” Perdue said. According to the 2020 Kids Count Michigan profile, 15.9% of Michigan kids between the ages of 0 and 17 suffer with food insecurity and 50% are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Statewide, there are 42.3% of households are in poverty and Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE), which are families who struggle to make ends meet between earnings and cost of living, as of 2020.
Cassidy added that kids are more susceptible to food insecurity than the general population, which is not acceptable as a state, or a nation.
For many, this is the first time they’re navigating the public safety net. They’re not sure where to begin, and the current system in place doesn’t make it any easier. Whether it is for financial need, unemployment aid, health benefits or the food pantry network, Skwir shares the need for “broad outreach and communication for all of these things, so people know where to go for help.”
“There are often many barriers that exist for children to access the summer food service program,” Skwir said. “In the past, I’d say under 20% of the eligible children who could participate in that program actually do, and there are a lot of regulations around that program, it doesn’t operate in the same way as any other nutrition program.”
These requirements included kids having to eat the food on-site—the food couldn’t be taken home. Also, children had to be present to receive the food so a parent couldn’t pick it up for them and only one meal could be served at a time, a major barrier for families struggling with time and transportation issues. The federal government has temporarily waived all of these restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis.
“These three things [having to eat on-site, having to have the child present and only allowing one meal at a time] are flexibilities that have been allowed during the pandemic, and combined, it has allowed for some of our food banks to distribute food more in a grocery-type package than prepared meals, which has been incredibly effective,” Skwir said.
The fact of the matter is, although the federal and state government have taken some temporary measures needed to ensure food accessibility and security for Michigan families, assistance will need to continue beyond the arbitrary end date in place. If all those efforts just fizzle out before the need does and food access for families is taken out of focus, Michigan kids will suffer the consequences, on top of the inequities people have been already facing every day, long before COVID took its toll.
“In times of crisis, we find ways to be innovative and be more efficient and effective and these are some great examples of things that were necessary in response to a crisis, but that we should continue because it’s helping to meet folks’ needs,” Perdue said.
And that is exactly what this conversation emphasized: the need to keep food security and accessibility for kids at the forefront of current discussions and for U.S. policy to reflect this as an ongoing priority.
“We’re still meeting the meal pattern requirements that the federal government says, but we can get food out in a much more efficient and effective way,” Skwir said. “[The flexibilities] allow parents to only to have to pick up once a week: they can get [food] for all their children at the same time and they’re able to eat those meals together. So that’s something we’re really hoping for some permanent policy change on.”
According to Cassidy, one of the biggest things she is hoping to see in policy change is a temporary 15% increase in the SNAP maximum allotment so long as the unemployment rate remains elevated, in addition to an increase from $16 to $30 for the minimum monthly SNAP benefit.
“Right now, as families are experiencing all these very sudden job and income losses, food prices have also risen pretty dramatically during the COVID crisis, so a dollar just doesn’t go as far as it used to,” Cassidy said. “This is just a modest benefit increase that would make a really big difference for people that are struggling right now.”
The COVID-19 crisis brought a lot of issues to light that might not have been as evident to everyone prior to the pandemic. However, now that these inequities and issues have been exposed, it is more important than ever to continue the temporary efforts in place. It is not only important for our state now, but for its future, to dedicate the funding necessary to build a better Michigan for our kids by keeping innovative changes that work as permanent policy solutions.