WASHINGTON -- Can bigger food stamp benefits alleviate child hunger in rural Kentucky? U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday that the Obama administration wants to find out.
The Department of Agriculture will spend $27 million on five demonstration projects in rural areas "to see whether new and creative ways work more effectively in trying to deal with child poverty and the hunger that’s associated with it," Vilsack told HuffPost before the announcement.
Two of the programs, one in Nevada and the other in Kentucky, will spend $6.7 million for expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for families with children, according to a summary. Two projects focus on Indian country, with one delivering food to households with children who qualify for free school meals in Oklahoma's Chickasaw Nation and the other evaluating food access in the Navajo Nation. And the Virginia Department of Education will try giving some students three meals per day and also sending them home with extra food on the weekends.
All of the projects will take place in rural parts of the country.
"Ninety percent of counties with the highest level of child poverty are located in rural areas," Vilsack said.
Money for the studies comes from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, legislation championed by first lady Michelle Obama that led to an overhaul of the National School Lunch Program. Lawmakers offset the cost of the legislation partly by scheduling a reduction in food stamp benefits that took place in 2013.
Republicans in Congress are evaluating food stamps and also considering a reauthorization of the act this year. Lawmakers are hungry for data demonstrating the effectiveness of nutrition assistance programs, so the projects announced Monday are likely to inform upcoming debates.
During hearings last week, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) embraced testimony by Douglas Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, who said SNAP and other Great Society programs are more about income support than fighting hunger. Besharov said starvation has been eradicated as a public health issue.
Vilsack said food insecurity and childhood hunger remain problems, with 15.8 million children living in households that struggled to afford food at some point in 2013.
"I don’t think there’s any understanding or appreciation of the depth of child poverty in many rural areas in this country," Vilsack said.