We first met Maylee's family in 2012, when we began a five-year study about food and poverty in North Carolina. Over the course of the project, we conducted multiple interviews with more than 100 poor and working-class mothers of young children, including Maylee's mother, Ashley Taylor. We also made ethnographic observations of 12 families: accompanying them on trips to grocery stores and food pantries, tagging along during school lunches and doctor's visits, and spending time in their homes as they cooked and ate. And in 2017, we interviewed the kids in each family.
Four months before we interviewed Maylee, her family's food stamps had been cut off because of an administrative error. Ashley still hadn't been able to get it straightened out. "It's been tough," said Ashley. She regularly went to food pantries, and Maylee and her younger sister received backpacks filled with food from their school. Ashley was always looking for sales and recipes that she could make on a budget, and she had cut back on the size of her own meals. But even with all her efforts, there just wasn't enough. "The kids don't eat the way that I'd like," Ashley said.
In 2016, children in 3.1 million households experienced food insecurity at some point during the year. Whether temporary or chronic, food insecurity is devastating for kids. As a nation, we have historically tried to align our policies with the belief that we should do what we can to prevent children from being hungry. When he signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, President Truman said, "In the long view, no nation is any healthier than its children." Almost 20 years later, President Johnson argued that the food stamp program represented a way of "apply[ing] the power of America's new abundance to the task of building a better life for every American."
Our national policies have long reflected, imperfectly, the moral imperative that children deserve adequate food. Until now.
The draft of the farm bill that was passed by the House on June 21 entails an important change in the rules governing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps). SNAP is the country's most important food assistance program, serving one out of every eight Americans.
While SNAP already has work requirements for able-bodied adults without children, the House's proposal imposes an even harsher policyand extends it to parents of school-age children. It would require that most adults provide monthly proof that they are working or enrolled in at least 20 hours of work force training per week in order to receive support. Those who can't comply — whether it's because they can't find a job or their work hours drop below 20 hours a week — could be locked out of the program for three years.
The Senate's bipartisan version of the bill, passed last Thursday, does not include those changes to SNAP. As the House and Senate now try to reconcile their differences, a major question is whether the stricter work requirements that will leave more kids hungry will become law.
Tightening SNAP's eligibility rules is one of the Republicans' central goals. President Trump offered his support, as did the White House, for stricter work requirements in the farm bill, and the House Agriculture Committee chairman, Michael Conaway, predicted that the new work requirements would make it into the final version of the bill.
Analysts estimate that the new rules would impose large administrative costs on states and lead to more than one million people losing their food stamps. On average, each of those people would lose $1,816 in SNAP benefits annually. And because a majority of the people at risk are in households with children, the result would be more hungry kids.
The United States has held on to a tenuous agreement over recent decades that children deserve to have enough to eat, no matter what their parents do. The House proposal puts us in jeopardy of losing even this modicum of decency. Although the new rule technically targets adults, children will suffer as a result of it.
Eleven-year-old Avery, one of the kids in our study, knew that her dad sometimes skipped meals because he wanted "to make sure us kids get full." Avery also said that when she got hungry, she went outside and ran around, or drank "bottles and bottles of water," until the feeling went away.
Some kids talked about going to neighbors' houses and asking for something to eat. Eight-year-old Clayton proudly explained that he collected cans and bottles to help pay for food for his family.
"If you could tell the president something about food, what would it be?" we asked dozens of the kids we interviewed. More than one child wanted to tell the president about their favorite food. Eight-year-old Phoebe's answer has stayed with us: "That I don't have enough."
Millions of children in the United States are like Phoebe. The new SNAP rules proposed by the House would drastically cut many families' SNAP benefits, making an already harsh reality even worse for kids in food-insecure households. SNAP should not be restricted; to the contrary, it should be expanded, so that fewer families — and especially kids — are hungry.
Columbia. is assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University.
is associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. is assistant professor of sociology at the University of British
"A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity."