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Lawmakers Seek To Hold White House's First Food Insecurity Summit Since 1969

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The pandemic highlighted a crisis of Americans going hungry, and a team of lawmakers is now working to address the lingering food insecurity problem that affects as many as 35 million people here. They want to see a repeat of a White House summit that more than 50 years ago led to dramatic changes. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: After Joussell Lopez started attending college, he was faced with a difficult choice.

JOUSSELL LOPEZ: I was basically faced with a decision on whether, like, should I pay for my food, or should I just drop out of college?

GRISALES: The Northern Virginia student says it was one of the hardest moments of his life, even after surviving a dangerous trek from Nicaragua to the United States at the age of 14. Lopez was scared of seeking food assistance because he had heard a false rumor it could hurt his asylum case. So he took on two jobs with a full load of college classes.

LOPEZ: It was very stressful because I really needed the money. So I will actually work and work and work, and that was basically it. Emotionally, it was really, really bad.

GRISALES: Lopez's story is all too common today, says House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern. The Massachusetts Democrat is teaming up with New Jersey Senate Democrat Cory Booker to drop legislation to pressure the White House to host its first summit on food insecurity since 1969.

JIM MCGOVERN: We ought to get everybody into a room in the White House, lock the door, and keep them there until there is a plan to end hunger.

GRISALES: It's an issue that Bruce Goldstein, head of the Farmworker Justice Group, is watching closely.

BRUCE GOLDSTEIN: The irony is that they are producing food to feed us, and often they have limited access to the very food that they're producing.

GRISALES: Goldstein says about 30% of farmworker households fall below the poverty line, and often some immigrant workers fear they'll be deported if they try to access benefits. McGovern says he's also trying to put a face on the problem through advocates like Kathy Roth-Douquet, who is CEO of Blue Star Families, which tracks hunger issues for active service members.

KATHY ROTH-DOUQUET: The pandemic created three powerful body blows against military families.

GRISALES: Roth-Douquet recently testified the loss of free lunches, loss of jobs for military spouses and lockdown orders hurt. Her group recently found more than 1 in 10 active service members struggling with a hunger issue.

ERIKA TEBBENS: I really, really, really never imagined that I would need food assistance.

GRISALES: That's Erika Tebbens. She and her Navy husband were expecting a child when their housing allowance in Washington state disqualified them for help.

TEBBENS: I know a lot of people like to envision it's like we're just trying to get, like, handouts. But, like, we weren't. We were trying to live below our means to make our money stretch.

GRISALES: It's a story that's familiar to Tim Keefe, a Navy veteran and single dad who was sidelined when he was injured at a civilian blue-collar job in his late 40s. With the lost income, Keefe no longer qualified for food assistance.

TIM KEEFE: You know, I served my country, and I felt like they, you know, wouldn't even give me a sandwich for that.

GRISALES: He was evicted and lived in a tent through a frigid and bitter winter in Maine.

KEEFE: I had to add seven notches to the belt I was wearing just to keep my pants up. I lost a lot of weight.

GRISALES: Keefe says he was relieved when he turned 50 and was newly eligible for benefits.

KEEFE: I'm glad it didn't happen two years before. I wouldn't have made it another year.

GRISALES: Time is of the essence. Billions of dollars in extra food benefits have been handed out during the pandemic, but McGovern wants a permanent solution.

MCGOVERN: That is not only not good enough, it is unconscionable. It has to change.

GRISALES: The White House has yet to commit to a summit, and that's before it is clear if Republicans worried about big government spending will get in the way. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "TEARJERKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.