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New program aims to ease summer hunger for N.C. children 

Full length portrait of young black mother in supermarket shopping for groceries with little girl and pushing cart

By Jaymie Baxley

Madhu Vulimiri, deputy director of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Child and Family Well-Being, says summer is often the “hungriest time of year” for food-insecure households. 

It can be an especially harsh season, she said, for low-income families that rely on the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-cost meals to more than 900,000 students in North Carolina. The meals stop when public schools adjourn for the summer, leaving many children at risk of going undernourished over the long break.

“One in four kids experience food insecurity or chronic hunger, and it’s worse in the summer because many of the meals that students receive during the school year disappear,” Vulimiri said. “When summer comes, it should be an exciting time for kids. But for so many families, it is a more challenging time.”

SUN Bucks, a new food assistance program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aims to ease the strain. It gives eligible families with school-age children a one-time stipend of $120 per child to help pay for groceries while school is out. 

Who’s eligible for SUN Bucks? 

Parents with children attending schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program should qualify for SUN Bucks if they or their children receive one of the following:

  • Free or reduced-cost school lunches.
  • EBT benefits through SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 
  • Health care coverage through Medicaid. 
  • Cash assistance from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. 

Children and teens in foster care who attend schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program may also qualify, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. 

While many families that meet the above criteria will be automatically eligible for benefits, some will need to apply. For more information, visit ncdhhs.gov/sunbucks or call the state’s SUN Bucks hotline at 1-866-719-0141.

Also known as the Summer Electronic Benefit Program, SUN Bucks was established by Congress as part of the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022. North Carolina is among 36 states — and one of only nine states in the South — that chose to participate in the program during its first year of availability this summer.

“We’re really proud that we’re one of the states that are opting in,” Vulimiri said. “We think that this will be really important in helping families during this summer period. It will help them to put food on the table and help to mitigate some of those missing meals that they might have relied on when their child was in school.”

N.C. DHHS began mailing benefit cards to families, many of whom automatically qualified for SUN Bucks based on their enrollment in other assistance programs, on June 14. The agency is expected to distribute $120 million in benefits for roughly a million children by the end of September.

The funds are subject to the same restrictions as SNAP benefits. They can be spent on most grocery items, nonalcoholic drinks and seeds that produce food, but not on prepared meals or food that’s already hot.

“This is money that is going directly to families who need it, then those dollars are turning around and being spent in our state’s economy this summer and at our state’s local retailers,” Vulimiri said. “It’s kind of a win-win for the economy, for our families and for the state as a whole.”

Hunger pangs

The launch of SUN Bucks comes as many North Carolinians are struggling with increased levels of food insecurity.

“We’re in the midst of a hunger crisis that is worsening,” said Jason Kanawati Stephany, vice president of communications and public policy for the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina. “Here in North Carolina and across the country, food insecurity has reached its highest level in at least 15 years. It’s the highest it’s been since the Great Recession.”

More than 173,000 children and teens in the food bank’s 34-county service area were experiencing food insecurity in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s a 21 percent increase from 2021, when about 143,000 youngsters didn’t know where their next meal would come from. 

An analysis by the nonprofit Feeding America found that more than 488,000 young people across North Carolina lived with food insecurity in 2022, up from 353,450 a year earlier. More recently, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the cost of food has increased by about 2 percent in the past 12 months.

Stephany said there are racial disparities in the state’s hunger data, with Black and Latino families getting “hit twice as hard” as white families.

“The food insecurity rates are roughly double in Black and Latino households than they are in white households in North Carolina,” he said. “That’s a trend that we’ve seen in many places across the country as well.”

Summer hunger can have “long-lasting effects,” according to the aid organization Feed the Children. Students who miss meals while they’re away from school sometimes develop “physical and mental health problems,” leading to “poor educational performance” when they return to class. 

Having grown up in a food-insecure household himself, Stephany knows that summer can be “among the most challenging times of the year to keep food on the table.” 

“June is the time when kids no longer have that easy access to breakfast and lunch, and oftentimes snacks, at school,” he said. “Many parents and caregivers have to come up with at least 10 additional meals per week per child in their household.”

Limited aid

SUN Bucks is not without its shortcomings. 

Families have just 122 days to use the funds, a short window of time compared with SNAP benefits that expire only after going unused for nine months. DHHS says the clock starts as soon as the benefits are made available, regardless of when the recipient activates their card.

For families experiencing homelessness, simply getting the card can be a challenge. Tambra Chamberlain, a school social worker and the founder of a transitional housing program for young people in Moore County, said it is especially difficult for unsheltered people in rural communities where “homelessness is a lot harder to see.”

“Some people are living in their cars or in the woods,” she said. “How do they get to the funds if they don’t have a mailing address?”

DHHS says SUN Bucks cards for children “whose families have unstable housing” will be sent to the Department of Social Services office in the county where the child attends school. A social worker will then provide the card to the child or their family, the agency said.

Another issue is the amount of the benefit. With ever-rising grocery costs, $120 doesn’t go far at the supermarket.

A two-parent, two-child household in Wake County spends about $1,113 a month on food, according to cost of living estimates from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. That breaks down to roughly $278 per child—more than twice as much as the summer stipend from SUN Bucks.

Despite the program’s limitations, Stephany still believes it provides a “much-needed boost for nearly a million kids facing food insecurity across the state.”

“There are definite challenges that come with any federally funded program at this point, just due to the dynamics in Washington and some of the restrictions that some in Congress have insisted on placing on programs like this,” he said. “But overall this is putting more money in families’ pockets to afford groceries, and that is always going to be a very welcome addition and the most effective path for us to help address hunger in our community.”

The post New program aims to ease summer hunger for N.C. children  appeared first on North Carolina Health News.

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