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Lame-duck Congress jeopardizes school lunch program for poor, groups warn

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Hillel members from several New York City universities interacting with the homeless community during a resource fair in New York, Oct. 17, 2010.  (JCPA)

Hillel members from several New York City universities interacting with the homeless community during a resource fair in New York, Oct. 17, 2010. (JCPA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The framers of an interfaith effort with the grand goal of halving American poverty in the next decade had a small but focused message this week: Keep those school lunches coming.

At a meeting Monday on Capitol Hill at an event attended by congressional staffers, the framers of the effort spoke of a pending vote to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, the program which brings school breakfasts and lunches to needy children.

They are concerned that Congress in its post-election session will rush through an agenda to have lawmakers home in time to prepare for the new Congress in January and neglect to pass an act that must be reauthorized every five years.

"It’s a lame-duck Congress, but it has to be done," said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish public policy umbrella taking the lead in the Fighting Poverty with Faith initiative. "It has to be passed or else kids are going into Christmas hungry."

Both houses of Congress have passed the reauthorization, but now the House must pass the Senate version in order for the act to reach President Obama’s desk.

Congressional insiders do not give reauthorization strong chances. Congress is expected to end its session this week and is grappling with funding unemployment insurance. Reauthorizing the act, although an immediate term goal, was emblematic of the broad measures envisioned by the Fighting Poverty with Faith initiative over the next decade.

At the Capitol Hill event, which followed a day of lobbying, representatives of the three umbrella bodies — the JCPA, the National Council of Churches in Christ and Catholic Charities USA — joined Obama administration officials in outlining how faith groups could partner with government to reduce poverty. Census estimates show that 40 million Americans live at or below poverty level.

The programs wedded government with church and synagogue in a way unimaginable before President George W. Bush launched a faith-based initiatives office. Obama has tweaked some of Bush’s programming, weeding out more obvious expressions of faith, but he has embraced the partnership in ways other Democrats have not.

David Hansell, the acting assistant secretary for health and human services, called on faith groups, for instance, to train volunteers in navigating the federal bureaucracy, and then in assisting the poor in obtaining available benefits they might not otherwise know exist.

The supplemental nutrition assistance program, or food stamps, reach only two-thirds of those eligible, said Max Finberg, the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Faith groups could bring the $133 a month available under the program to another 20 million people.

The question looming over the proceedings was how such initiatives would be treated by the new Congress, in which the House will be led by Republicans spurred by the cost-slashing Tea Party.

"The great frontier virtue of self-reliance must be leavened with the equally as American virtue of compassion," Hansell said at Monday’s meeting. He used Tea Party rhetoric, which perpetually references the founders, to make the point.

Gutow said afterward he did not see the changed political climate as an immediate concern because both parties are dedicated to alleviating hunger.

"Hunger is bipartisan," he told JTA.

Officials note that the new poor come from the ranks of a class that is politically engaged, making it an issue that Congress would be hard-pressed to ignore.

"We are now serving people coming in the front door who never envisioned in their lifetimes needing these programs," Kevin Concannon, an undersecretary for agriculture, said of government relief programs.

Much of the talk at Monday’s session was peppered with Jewish references, a sign of the disproportionate Jewish voice in the initiative. Non-Jewish speakers referred to the Passover Haggadah and to Hillel, in addition to Old Testament prophets, in making the case to alleviate poverty by 2010.

This is the third annual fall mobilization for the initiative, culminating in a Thanksgiving-time call for change. Jewish groups often take the lead in the public initiatives to highlight poverty. This year, Detroit’s Jewish Community Relations Council joined a local Muslim umbrella body in organizing a day of free medical checkups for the poor.

In New York, Hillels at New York University, Columbia University and Yeshiva University joined to set up a homeless resource fair last month that provided blankets, clothing and food for the homeless.

"Our goal is to humanize the homeless community’s plight and inspire real reform to help these individuals find food and shelter," said Ilana Hostyk, the Yeshiva University student who organized the fair.

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