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Feed kids, for goodness’ sake

Making sure children have enough to eat is a no-brainer at the best of times. So why is the federal government about to make it harder in the midst of pandemic?

A school in Pennsylvania provided breakfast meals for students.
A school in Pennsylvania provided breakfast meals for students.Todd Berkey/Associated Press

SALEM — Pretending the pandemic and the economic catastrophe it unleashed are over won’t make it so — not even if you do so a thousand times over, as the GOP robopols did at their bizarre convention this week.

A thousand Americans continue to die of COVID-19 each day. About 28 million are collecting unemployment benefits. As fall yields to winter, more businesses — and their workers — will be vulnerable to the pandemic undertow.

But you’d never know any of this from listening to the president and his acolytes, who barely mentioned the pandemic that has consumed this country during the convention, except to occasionally suggest it is just about licked.

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Among the millions endangered by their deadly denial: Kids who depend on the federal government to keep from going hungry, and who will soon be more vulnerable than ever, thanks to the administration’s hard-hearted obduracy.

In the spring, when COVID hit and kids were sent home, the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the nation’s school meal programs, gave shuttered schools more flexibility to feed kids. Schools could provide meals to anybody who showed up for them, not just the kids whose parents had completed the paperwork to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And families could visit any meal site location to pick up that food, based on what worked best for them — not just their kids’ schools, but other schools, or YMCAs and other community centers if they were more convenient.

On Friday morning, workers from the Salem Public Schools distributed food from a yellow bus outside Rainbow Terrace, a low-income housing development. At 9 a.m., adults trickled out of the squat buildings to collect plastic bags containing three days’ worth of sandwiches and make-your-own-pizza kits for their kids, and boxes of fresh vegetables.

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For those cut off by the pandemic, homebound to protect themselves or others, the yellow bus, which visits the neighborhood three times a week, has been a lifeline. But thanks to the USDA, that line will be replaced by red tape in late September.

Because the USDA plans to retighten some of the rules it relaxed in March, community sites like this one will have to shut down, even though many kids aren’t going back into classrooms. As the economic fallout from the pandemic worsens, millions more beleaguered parents across the country will have to prove their kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and many who need those lunches will not meet the requirements because they’re far too unforgiving. The whole mess will be managed by schools already overwhelmed with finding ways to educate kids safely. And the meal program will be tied once again to the schools kids attend, which means some parents with children in different schools will have to visit each one to collect food. That’s too much to ask of working parents, or of those without access to good transit options.

“It becomes this nightmare in the middle of a pandemic,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who is working with Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat, to convince the USDA to act more sanely here. “This is crazy and unnecessary.”

Why, indeed, would you make feeding kids harder when hunger costs children, and all of us, so much? Erin McAleer, president of Project Bread, says one in five Massachusetts households with kids now faces food insecurity — double the already-unconscionable pre-pandemic rate. Hot lines have been jammed with residents looking for food assistance as their higher unemployment payments run out. The stricter USDA rules will only add to the pain.

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“Why would you pull that rug out from under people,” asked Pressley. “This is just cruel and violent ... and completely unnecessary.”

The USDA, like the president, is proceeding as if the emergency has passed, which is ridiculous. Officials there have made the spurious claim that they don’t have the authority to keep the system working the way it has for the last six months, and are calling on Congress to provide a fix. How many kids will go hungry before the soulless Mitch McConnell’s Senate deigns to act?

As McGovern says, “There really is a special place in hell for anybody that embraces policies that will take food away from kids.”

It’s going to be very crowded down there.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.