Washington, DC - Speaking on Thursday at an event hosted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spotlighting food security for school children, Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy Sam Kass took House Republicans to task for last week's vote to approve legislation that slashes billions in funding over ten years from the Food Stamps program. (Above, Kass during his remarks; Duncan is far right)
About 47% of the more than 47.7 million Americans receiving federal benefits each month are children under age 18, according to the Department of Agriculture.
"That we would try to cut a program that is just keeping people afloat, just making sure their basic needs are being met to the tune of $40 billion--that is simply unconscionable in this great nation," Kass said.
"We know that we can do better. We have to do better."
Kass was adamant: "The very future of this country is at stake," he said. "There has got to be better places to save some money."
President Barack Obama also rebuked House Republicans for the vote during his keynote address at a gala dinner last weekend. The President will veto the measure should it receive final approval from the House and Senate, according to a Statement of Administration Policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget.
Duncan, Kass, USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), and an army of volunteers packed canned goods and other non-perishable foods into 1,000 Blessings backpacks destined for area schoolchildren.
And Kass wasn't the only one blasting the House GOP: Lee and Schakowsky did, too. Lee called the SNAP vote "morally and ethically" wrong, while Schakowsky said it was "unbelievable," and that it also "jeopardized" some children’s access to free and reduced price lunches in the NSLP.
But there was plenty of praise for the Blessings project.
"Food insecurity has a definite impact on learning," Duncan said. "The Blessings in a Backpack organization is helping to ensure that more than 60,000 kids who receive backpacks of food for the weekend don’t come to school hungry on Mondays."
Kass, noting he was on hand to represent First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, also praised the work of Blessings, noting that "one in five children are food insecure at some point in the year."
"Today is a real example of how the public sector and the private sector and non-profits come together, and I am thrilled to be here," Kass said.
Founded in 2006, Blessings was named Charity of the Year for 2012 by People magazine's "First Help Feed a Child" campaign. (Above, Concannon and Kass load cans into backpacks)
For the first time in the foundation's history, a Washington, DC school will receive some of the Blessings backpacks on Friday, said CEO Brooke Wiseman.
Stanton Elementary School, in the Anacostia neighborhood in Southeast, will receive more than 100 of the backpacks. The entire school population receives free and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, said Principal Rena Johnson.
Many of the children also participate in the school's breakfast and after-school snack programs, Johnson said, so they are eating all three daily meals at school. She was very excited about joining the Blessings program, and noted that more than 50 of her students are actually homeless.
The food included in the Blessings backpacks is donated, and is selected so children can feed themselves, said Wiseman. Duncan and his crew packed cans of soup and fruit with pop-tops, single-serving granola bars in a variety of flavors, and packages of oatmeal that can be mixed with hot tap water, Wiseman said. (Above, Duncan and Wiseman)
Local produce is added to backpacks when possible, Wiseman said; since Blessings operates in 43 states, there are "regional tweaks."
The backpacks given to children do not carry the foundation's name, logo, or any identifiable markings, "so there is no stigma attached to participating," Wiseman said.
"Sometimes we just put a grocery bag of food into a child's own backpack, whatever works," said Wiseman.
Visit the foundation's website at www.blessingsinabackpack.org.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama. Also in the photo at top is from r of Kass: Concannon, Wiseman, and Schakowsky.