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Opinion: Congress must do the right thing

By Eric Aft

The last few months have been hard and continue to be devastating for people in our community who have lost loved ones, their ability to earn a living or even both. But difficult times often bring out the best in people. We’ve seen this come to life at Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.

The support of National Guard members, deployed in the early days of the pandemic, was critical to our food bank’s ability to strengthen our work and implement new strategies to reach those in need; giving us extra hands to change the way we work that protected the safety of our staff, food assistance partners, volunteers, and people coming to our network for help.

The North Carolina National Guard members deployed to Second Harvest Food Bank were called away from their families to help fight a very real adversary — exploding food insecurity. Many people may be surprised that this is a challenge that many of our soldiers face themselves.

Approximately seven percent of active duty military families face food insecurity and nine percent have sought food assistance at a food pantry during the past year. Our nation has an obligation to ensure that the individuals who protect our country have the resources to consistently and reliably access adequate nutritious food to feed themselves and their families.

When COVID-19 hit and many schools closed, far too many children (and their parents) experienced worry and concern over whether there would be enough to eat, as access to the National Free- and Reduced-Price Lunch program was disrupted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed leadership by allowing Second Harvest Food Bank and other emergency food assistance organizations flexibility to safely provide meals for children where they could be reached — whether through drive-thrus at schools, churches, recreation centers or other community sites closer to children’s homes.

This leadership is needed again, as most students will not be at school five days a week this fall. Second Harvest Food Bank is asking the USDA to act with urgency to extend all child nutrition waivers to the end of this school year. Without these flexibilities from USDA, all of us should be deeply concerned about whether and how the more than 50% of children who participate in federal nutrition programs in school will access the food they need to support their ability to learn.

Our nation has a moral obligation and vested interest in ensuring that our children — all children — can reliably access the food they need to stay healthy, to learn, and to reach their potential.

Recent administrative actions fall well short of what will be necessary to help the families coming to our partner food pantries for food assistance. We understand that congressional and administration leaders will not be coming back to the negotiating table until September. This delay is undoubtedly creating hardship for many area families, as they face smaller unemployment checks, a growing number of unpaid bills, and an uncertain timeline for additional assistance.

We need your help to ensure that our military families and our children have adequate access to the nutritious food they need. Please contact your members of Congress today and ask them to:

  • Include the Basic Needs Allowance in the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bill to assist these service members and their families.
  • Contact USDA and request the child nutrition waivers authorized in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Bill be extended through this school year.

Honoring those who serve our country by giving them the resources to care for their basic needs should not even be a question we have to ask — let’s correct this situation now. Making sure that all children can access the good nutrition vital to their health and well-being is the right thing. And it is the smart thing, because their success will impact our collective future and success of our nation.

Eric A. Aft is chief executive officer of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.