A summer meals program created by the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty has transitioned from a demonstration project into a full-blown federal strategy to combat childhood hunger.
Meals-To-You was included in the 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Bill signed into law by President Joe Biden Dec. 29.
With the passage of the $1.7 trillion package, states will have the option to use Meals-to-You programs to address food insecurity in isolated areas where traditional summer feeding programs have been unavailable.
Meals-To-You is now part of a three-tier anti-hunger approach that includes the longstanding summer meals program and an electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, program that enables families to purchase summer meals in stores.
The Baylor collaborative launched Meals-To-You in 2019 to deliver food to impoverished children living in rural Texas households, then it was expanded with federal funding to more than 40 states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Becoming a federal program is good news to Executive Director Jeremy Everett.
“I’m thrilled,” he said. “Being part of the omnibus essentially makes Meals-to-You a permanent program for children in rural America. It means it’s not going to be a piecemeal program anymore and rural families can start to rely on it.”
The EBT program will help families whose children cannot attend traditional sites like schools, nonprofits and community centers for meals, but who do have access to grocery stores. Meals-To-You will cover those who live too far from stores.
“The omnibus funds all three, which is really a major step forward,” Everett said.
Meals-To-You proved its scalability in 2020 when it was expanded to counter rising food insecurity rates caused by the pandemic. The program was used to provide student meals during school closures. That surge resulted in nearly 40 million meals being delivered to more than 273,000 children in 43 states and Puerto Rico.
Now being an option in the 2023 federal spending plan will be a game-changer for rural families nationwide, Everett said. “When you are able to provide home-delivered meals to children in rural America, that has a tremendous impact on child food insecurity.”
What isn’t known is if the collaborative will continue to be involved in the operation of the program once federal and state leaders begin implementing it, Everett said. “That’s to be determined at this point. We are prepared to work alongside whoever the implementing partners are. I expect we’ll be involved in some capacity during the next three to five years. We’re prepared to help in any way we can.”
“We are a research collaborative at a major university. We see where gaps are then test solutions with research.”
There is nothing unusual about creating a program and eventually turning it over to other agencies to operate, he explained. “We are not a traditional nonprofit. We are a research collaborative at a major university. We see where gaps are then test solutions with research. If that research is effective, then we work with Congress or the USDA or USAID toward implementation.”
The organization’s work also involves keeping government leaders and agencies aware of challenges of systemic hunger and the ways the collaborative can help address them, Everett said. “Our job is to develop scalable solutions to end hunger through research innovation. We don’t really lobby, but we try to keep USDA and Congress and the White House — regardless of who’s in it — informed and engaged in the work we are doing. It means being in constant communication with them.”
In October, Everett participated in a Biden-led White House summit on eradicating hunger by 2030. The collaborative’s presence at the event may have contributed to the inclusion of Meals-to-You in the comprehensive spending bill for 2023.
Members of Congress also were approached during the runup to completion of the omnibus spending bill. “We made sure they were thinking about Meals-To-You and rural child hunger, and that rural children would be provided for in the bill,” Everett said.
Meanwhile, the Baylor collaborative already has other research under way, Everett said. “Meals-To-You was one of 19 programs we are working on, but among the largest is hunger for older adults and households with disabilities. That is the next area we will be paying attention to.”
That focus is necessitated by the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, high numbers of Americans retiring on fixed incomes and the rising cost of food.