Julia Hamilton, Extended Day Director for Monongalia County Schools, penned this guest blog on how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helps her students and why they can’t afford cuts to the program. Congress returns to Washington this week, and members of the conference committee will debate the Senate and House versions to finalize the Farm Bill.
One of the best parts of my job as Extended Day Director for Monongalia County Schools is getting to know the children and families I work for and with every single day. Working with every elementary, middle, and high school in our county provides me with a unique insight into the increased challenge that too many of our families find themselves facing: food insecurity.
Many of our students do not come from wealthy families. Despite many parents working day in and day out to provide the basics, budgets remain tight. When particularly tough times hit – when Mom can’t secure enough hours at her job or a child falls ill for days on end – it can quickly become impossible to make ends meet. On those occasions, that can mean making the difficult choice between paying rent or buying groceries. Research shows us that students who consistently come to school hungry are being put at a distinct disadvantage in the classroom, with many struggling to live up to their academic potential. But we don’t need research and data to tell us something that our very own stomachs scream any time we happen to rush out the door without grabbing breakfast — it is impossible to focus when you’re truly hungry.
As the director of afterschool programming, I spend a portion of most of my days visiting programs in order to interact with students and learn what they like, and what they wish they could change. My students are very often my most powerful and effective evaluation tool – their voices matter to me. During a visit to one of our most at-risk schools earlier this year, I had each of the students write down what they loved most about coming to afterschool – many of the students’ responses centered around appreciating the chance to eat another meal before going home.
This is where the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) comes in. Formerly referred to as food stamps, SNAP helps families make ends meet. Its modest benefits – on average only about $1.29 per person per meal – can make all the difference to students like ours. In any given month, more than 40 million Americans turn to the program so that they can provide their families with the nutrition they need. SNAP keeps 4 million children out of poverty, including 24,000 West Virginia children. For many of our families, SNAP is a lifeline.
For me, this is personal. I want every single one of my students to thrive. But if my students are focused on their empty bellies, rather than mastering mathematics or conquering coding, they will not be able to achieve what they are very much capable of doing. A hungry child is a child who cannot focus on anything other than filling that void. A hungry child is a child who will struggle to learn, and ultimately, struggle to succeed.
Cutting SNAP would create a genuine threat to the 20 million kids across the country who depend on the program for a more healthy, balanced diet. That is why I was so disappointed to see the House version of the Farm Bill that contained $19 billion in cuts to the program, for which all three West Virginia house members voted. Fortunately, cooler heads in the Senate prevailed, and a bipartisan bill that protects and strengthens SNAP was passed.
Next comes a conference committee, where the House and Senate must agree on a compromise bill to fund SNAP. I urge Congress to take up the Senate’s approach, which will ensure that the kids in my schools and their families will continue to have access to vital food assistance.