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“Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

About one in four households with children answered “yes” to that question last year, according to a recent report from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). In 21 states and the District of Columbia, more than 25 percent answered yes.

These statistics alone are a telling statement of the condition of our country and help reveal just how many families are scraping by and can’t meet their basic needs. Food hardship has been a persistent problem for too many. It increased during the Great Recession, and it is far from fading.

Fortunately, nutrition programs respond to increased need as is demonstrated by a record spike in those receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps or SNAP). Department of Agriculture data show that one in seven Americans receives SNAP benefits. In May 2011, more than 45.7 million people received SNAP, up 12 percent in one year and up an astonishing 62 percent increase since May 2008. Participation in other child nutrition programs such as WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the school lunch program also increased.

During hard times the country’s safety net, including nutrition programs, becomes a life line for children. It provides for those who otherwise would have to miss meals or eat cheaper food lacking in proper nutrients. But programs such as food assistance don’t exist in a vacuum. State data suggest that the vast majority of children who receive child care assistance also receive SNAP benefits. More than half of Head Start families receive WIC benefits. All of these programs play a critical role in children’s development.

Across the country, Head Start and child care programs have provided meals for low-income children who might otherwise not get enough to eat. For many children, the recession meant a time of uncertainty while their parents lost jobs and, in some cases, homes. Children who were lucky enough to retain their spot in a Head Start or child care program benefited from consistency while other aspects of their lives might have been in turmoil.

In other words, these programs co-exist. The recent debt ceiling agreement offered some protections for the SNAP program as it should. But those of us who advocate for children and low-income families believe that the whole child must be addressed. Children need adequate nutrition to grow up healthy. They need also health insurance and access to a medical home for sick visits and regular check-ups. Their parents need child care assistance that allows them to go to work and provide for their families while their children play and learn. All of these things are interconnected.

The debt agreement means Congress will now have to make choices about deep spending cuts. They will choose where to make the cuts among programs that provide education, child care, nutrition assistance, housing assistance, and other critical services. The cuts are not abstract. The choices Congress now has to make will determine what service, or how many services, will be taken away from the same child. They will choose whether a child will eat breakfast, or stay in Head Start, or get to see a doctor. They can also choose to include revenues in future agreements and ensure greater protections for low-income children and their families. Let's hope they choose wisely.


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