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President Obama wants to feed poor kids in the summer, too

As part of his 2017 budget, President Obama is expected to propose a new program that gives kids in low-income households $45 per month in groceries during the summer. 

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    In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, Jaxlee Overton, 5, plays with a piece of bologna he chewed three holes in as he eats lunch with his classmates at Daniel Wertz Elementary School in Evansville, Ind.
    Erin McCracken/Evansville Courier & Press
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In 2014, more than 15 million kids lived in "food-insecure households" in the US. Now, President Obama will try to make a dent in that number by extending subsidized school meals to children in the summertime.

During the school year, 22 million children receive free or reduced priced school meals in the National School Lunch Program. But after school lets out in June, only 3.8 million children were served under government meal programs on an average summer day last year.

While the cause of feeding kids in need has long garnered bipartisan support, implementing summer feeding programs is a tricky matter for the Department of Agriculture as well as nonprofit organizations. Summer meals have been offered at libraries and summer camps, and some groups, such as the Hopkins County (Ky.) YMCA, have even delivered meals in trucks.

Under Mr. Obama’s proposal, families who qualify for subsidized school meals would receive an electronic benefits card with a $45 credit per child to buy groceries each month school is out of session.

The Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) program would cost $12 billion over the next 10 years, according to a Department of Agriculture statement, and would be permanent and universal.

"The reality is, obviously, we still have millions of kids that are not getting the help and assistance they need," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the program, told NPR’s Pam Fessler.

"The president is suggesting the time has come to make a longer term, permanent commitment to making sure that all kids have access to meals during the summer," he added.

Summer EBT initially began in 2011 as regional pilot programs in three states. After expanding it to another five states and two tribal organizations, the USDA found that in its evaluation that the program was indeed productive in reducing food insecurity and improving nutrition.

But despite the USDA findings, some key Republicans in Congress won’t likely back Obama’s proposed program. As Ms. Fessler reported, House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as several of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates, have all voiced opposition to federal safety net programs, instead opting for block grants and state-led initiatives.

"I'd combine a lot of them and send that money back to the states for better poverty-fighting solutions: Require everyone who can to work. Let states and communities try different ideas. And then test the results," Mr. Ryan said in a speech at the Library of Congress last month.

Last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed a similar but watered-down version of Obama’s Summer EBT – the Hunger Free Summer for Kids Act. Spearheaded by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio, the bill provides children in low-income households $30 per month to spend on nutritious food and makes it easier for summer programs to participate.

“This legislation – passed bipartisanly, unanimously – will help us reach more children so they can eat in the summer in the same way they do during the school year,” Mr. Brown told Ohio’s Your News Now station. “We’re also in this bill encouraging local fresh foods and vegetables from local farmers.”

The House has yet to vote on the bill.

The White House says it will announce its proposed measures as part of a bigger conversation on hunger in America Wednesday afternoon. In addition to the Summer EBT program, the president is expected to announce an initiative that allows state agencies to use Medicaid data and automatically enroll qualified children in free and reduced school meal programs, streamlining the at times arduous process.

By summer 2017, the White House goal is to have nearly one million low-income children receive EBT benefits. If all states begin offering the program by 2026, that number could increase to about 20 million.

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