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An easy choice for Speaker Ryan

The Summer Meals Act: an easy choice for Speaker Ryan.

Paul Ryan walked into his new role as speaker of the House with an ambitious agenda to fix a broken institution. The coalition of members who elected him is eager to see how his leadership will differ than that of his predecessor. Taking action on simple bills with broad bipartisan support can score the Wisconsin Republican easy legislative victories as he begins his new role.

One such bill — The Summer Meals Act, H.R. 1728 — is a straightforward proposal that would support millions of American children in getting access to affordable, nutritious food over the summer months. Legislative action is needed now in order to prepare students, sponsors and state administrators for the summer of 2016.

Put simply, federal summer nutrition programs are essential for our nation's low-income students. When the academic year ends, school lunches and breakfasts end as well. During the summer, millions of low-income American schoolchildren and their families lose access to the school nutrition programs upon which they rely. Low-income family budgets become even more tightly constrained.

Summer meal programs help Maryland's children. In Maryland, nearly 21 percent of households with children are food insecure and struggle to provide healthy food for their families. Even brief periods of food insecurity can impair a child's development. According to Feeding America, childhood food insecurity is linked with chronic health conditions like anemia and asthma, poor quality of life, and increased frequency of hospitalizations.

Summer meal programs help low-income students and their families, but there are substantial barriers to participation. In order to participate in summer nutrition programs, students and families must know about a meal site and be able to get there. This can pose a challenge to many families, especially those without a safe way to get to the food.

Unfortunately, summer food programs are chronically underutilized. The crushing administrative burden of the summer meal program discourages potential sponsors and sites. Nationwide, only 16.2 percent of students who participate in the national school lunch program receive summer meals, according to the Food Research & Action Center. A 2006 study of summer food sponsors from the University of Mississippi found that paperwork was the primary reason why individual sponsors would not want to start or continue participating in the program. Some reforms have been initiated already, including the Seamless Summer Option. The simple fact is: We should not let paperwork stop low-income students from getting the food they qualify for next summer.

The Summer Meals Act is a step in the right direction and has broad, bipartisan support. Advanced by Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, in the House and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, in the Senate, the bill expands the possibilities for program sponsors. Among other things, the bill would allow summer meal sites where at least 40 percent of the children in the community qualify for free or reduced price lunches to be classified as "open sites." At "open sites," meals are served for free to any child on a first-come, first-served basis. Sponsors are then reimbursed for the number of meals provided at sites.

Innovation is critical to improving this much-needed program. The Summer Meals Act authorizes the USDA to award competitive grants for projects addressing participation barriers in the summer meals program. As identified in the bill, projects involving mobile meal trucks and innovative approaches to limited transportation have the potential to improve nutrition in underserved, hard-to-reach areas.

If Speaker Ryan is looking to make the House work for the people, he should bring bills to the floor for discussion and a vote that address real-world problems for Americans. The Summer Meals Act shouldn't languish in committee. Instead, the bill represents a likely legislative victory for the new speaker that would not require much heavy lifting on his part.

Tommy Tobin is a teaching fellow in the economics department of Harvard University and a student at Harvard Law School; his email is ttobin@jd16.law.harvard.edu.

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