With Child Hunger Rising, A Federal Aid Program Has Stalled The federal government has yet to approve plans in most states for giving out money that was authorized in October.

Why Billions In Food Aid Hasn't Gotten To Needy Families

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Child hunger has risen during the pandemic. An estimated 1 in 4 households with children are food insecure. Congress has appropriated funds to help, but NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports the rollout has been delayed for months.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: It's about 5 p.m., and families are driving up behind the low-slung red brick McSwain Elementary School in Staunton, Va., to pick up groceries. Kim Herron, the school's cafeteria manager, is there to greet them with plastic bags of frozen, ready-to-go meals.

KIM HERRON: Hey. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How are you?

HERRON: I'm doing great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three.

HERRON: OK, so a few milks are there.

KAMENETZ: When schools shut down in the spring, it raised worries about the nearly 30 million children who depend on school food. Districts like Staunton's sprang into action, offering groceries and meals for pickup. Shawn Wong is a retired father with two kids in the district.

SHAWN WONG: They've got an abundance of oranges, apples, lettuce and salad mixes. Thanksgiving, they had a bag of fresh carrots, you know, and other produce. That helped a lot.

KAMENETZ: But with pandemic job losses concentrated among women, especially Black and Latina women, these programs haven't been enough to stop the rise in child hunger. Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University, says...

DIANE SCHANZENBACH: These are just levels that we've never seen before.

KAMENETZ: She says typically when families are having trouble stretching their food budget, the adults will go without food themselves before allowing the children to go hungry. But now she says...

SCHANZENBACH: One out of six adults with kids is saying that they don't have enough food. They're actually hungry.

KAMENETZ: One federal program did make a difference. Congress passed a law in the spring giving families the cash value of the meals they missed when schools were closed. Even if families weren't already signed up for food benefits, they got a debit card in the mail with hundreds of dollars on it to spend at any grocery store. Lauren Bauer, a scholar for the Brookings Institution, estimated that all by itself, this program lifted between 2.7 and 3.9 million children out of hunger. But that was last spring.

LAUREN BAUER: The long and short of it is for the past three months, states should have been able to distribute more than $100 of food benefits per child.

KAMENETZ: That's $117 per child per each full month out of school, to be exact. Congress did reauthorize these benefits for this current school year and even extended them to younger children. Yet only one state, Massachusetts, says it has started to give out the money. What happened? Well, this fall, not every school was closed. Closures varied week to week, state to state, district to district, even school to school. And Bauer says states were expected to calculate the precise number of missed meals for each student.

BAUER: Unlike in the spring, when you could make the assumption that all schools were closed everywhere, USDA has not allowed states to do that.

KAMENETZ: The U.S. Department of Agriculture didn't even issue guidance to states on making plans for how to do this for six weeks until November 16. They have approved only three states' plans so far - Massachusetts, Indiana and Rhode Island. And they haven't even touched the issue of how states should handle the benefit for children under 6. The USDA gave NPR a statement that read in part it will, quote, "continue to actively partner with states to understand their concerns, streamline processes and provide benefits in accordance with our authority." Bauer, for one, is not satisfied.

BAUER: USDA is not making it easy for any state to roll out this program.

KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

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