Advocates on hunger and poverty issues won a surprising victory last week - a major allocation of funding for nutrition assistance. The state of our nation is depressing in many ways. But this advocacy achievement encourages us to keep working. Two huge political decisions are pending and require our involvement now.
Hunger has surged during the COVID crisis, especially among children. Church groups, food charities, and others have been working since the onset of the COVID crisis to support increases in the national nutrition programs and other government actions to address widespread hunger and hardship.
Already in March, Congress and the administration took steps that increased access to SNAP and WIC. They also launched the Pandemic EBT program, which has allowed low-income families to receive school lunches and breakfasts even when school buildings are not open.
Yet the Census Bureau’s weekly surveys still show that hunger is much more widespread than before the pandemic. The number of children who are going without needed food in a given week is more than five times what it was before the pandemic. Thus, many of us have been pushing to secure additional nutrition funding.
We have recruited support from a growing number of Republican senators. But Republican leadership delayed consideration of another COVID relief bill for several months and then proposed a much smaller package than the Democrats believe to be essential. The two parties have been too far apart on the size of the relief package to start negotiations.
The Circle of Protection has worked together to increase nutrition assistance in the next COVID relief bill. When we met last Monday, we all concurred that our effort had been stymied.
But in a happy surprise, a few House Republicans joined with Democrats that evening to add $8 billion for nutrition assistance to a must-pass bill to keep the government open. The $8 billion will continue Pandemic EBT for another 12 months and extend pandemic-related flexibilities for SNAP and WIC. The appropriation bill passed the House with these additions and seems very likely to become law in the next few days.
It’s a little miracle -- like the spring of water at Meribah in the Sinai desert (Exodus 17). When the people of Israel were ready to give up, water suddenly gushing out of a dry rock kept them moving forward.
In fact, $8 billion for nutrition is a not-so-little thing. To provide a sense of scale, the value of all the charitable food assistance in the country is about $14 billion a year. Failure to extend Pandemic EBT would have taken away more than half that much food from needy families over the next 12 months.
It now also seems that there might be some chance for agreement on the entire COVID relief package. Both sides have made recent moves to open discussion. Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be speaking at an interfaith vigil in support of COVID relief on Tuesday, September 29, at 9:50 a.m. ET. I'll be speaking and offering a prayer right after that. The all-day event will be live-streamed at www.facebook.com/BreadfortheWorld.
Our Members of Congress need to hear that we don’t want them to leave Washington without passing a robust COVID relief bill. The fund the administration is using to add $300 a week to unemployment insurance is running out, and families can’t wait until January to pay their bills. Many state and local governments are on the edge of deep cuts to schools and other community services. If Congress and the President fail to agree on continued COVID relief, the human cost will be severe.
We must also do everything we can to influence the upcoming election. The future direction of our nation - maybe even the continuation of U.S. democracy - is at stake. So we should make it our business to talk with friends and family about voting and voting wisely. We should make generous political contributions. We should offer volunteer time to campaigns we support. One of my sons is writing notes to people he doesn’t know in one of the swing states, explaining why their vote is important to him.
Maybe we needed a little miracle to keep us moving forward.