Sophie Edwards of Marietta is passionate about ending childhood hunger in Georgia.
Like many activists, she started small. She got her friends involved in bake sales and food drives and donated the proceeds to area food banks.
Then, in a light-bulb moment, she decided the most direct way to attack the problem was to go to Washington and knock on some doors. Three times this year she’s gone to the Capitol to press congressmen and senators to ease access to feeding programs for kids, particularly in the summer when the need is greatest.
Did I mention she’s in middle school?
Sophie, 13, is doing what few adults ever do — trying to make government more effective and hold officials accountable. She said it was a natural leap from lemonade stands to lobbying.
“Legislators and senators, they are the people with big bucks,” she said, ticking off the alphabet soup of federal social welfare programs that provide a food safety net for one out of five Georgia children.
“They have control of the funding for SNAP and WIC and the summer feeding programs,” she said. “If I got them on my side I could convince them not to cut programs.”
Sophie first grew concerned about childhood hunger in third grade when she noticed some of her friends had a different lunch tray. Those kids, she learned, were receiving a free or reduced-price lunch with limited options because their parents didn’t earn enough to afford the full fare.
She has learned that millions of kids around the nation depend on schools to provide them with their best, most calorie-rich meals of the day. Summer break — which starts next week for most Georgia districts — is particularly tough for these children for the same reason.
To bridge that gap, the federal government funds a summer feeding program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bureaucracy hampers program
Sophie’s passion got me interested in how the summer feeding program works in Georgia.
While it is an underused program, Danah Craft, executive director of the Georgia Food Bank Association, said Georgia is showing some progress. Last summer, the program served nearly 10 million meals at more than 2,000 sites around the state. According to the USDA, Georgia’s program has increased participation by a third since 2011. Only New York, Texas and California served more children last summer.
But there are problems as well. State paperwork burdens make it difficult for local program sponsors to get their programs up and running, she said.
“The sponsors of these programs at the state level will tell you it is 75 percent paperwork and 25 percent feeding children,” Craft said.”They would rather it be the other way around.”
And Craft said federal rules governing the program often don’t work in real-world situations.
For instance, USDA regulations require that children eat their meal communally in a central area. That doesn’t work in rural areas where kids can’t get transportation to a school or library or in urban areas like a housing project that doesn’t have a convenient or safe communal space, Craft said.
“There is a school system in the southern part of the state where they put the food on the school buses and they run a route,” she said.
The bus parks, and to meet the federal regulation, the children are required to board the bus and eat there. Craft said if there were more flexibility to the program, the bus could deliver the meals and leave, reaching more children in need.
Hunger advocates also are concerned with the House version of a bill reauthorizing the national school lunch program, which raises standards for school-wide participation in the free and reduced lunch program. In its current form, Craft said an estimated 180,000 Georgia children could be kicked out of the program and forced to reapply next fall.
Next stop: Gov. Deal
Armed with her research and a newly minted crown from the Miss Rome’s Outstanding Teen Pageant, Sophie and her mother, Rebecca Edwards, sat in a hamburger joint on Capitol Hill and started calling offices. So far this year she’s gotten in to see not only her congressman, Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, but also Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
She formed her closest relationship with Massachusetts Rep. John McGovern, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition. Like Sophie, McGovern has made childhood hunger a personal cause and the two spent the better part of an hour last month brainstorming strategies in the representative’s Washington office.
“He started writing things down and his chief of staff was in the room, too,” she said. “I think they were both genuinely interested in what I had to say.”
After meeting with her, McGovern recognized her passion from the floor of the U.S. House.
“Sophie teaches us all that you are never too young to make a difference,” he said.
Sophie’s next target is Gov. Nathan Deal. She wants to press the governor to make his 2011 pledge to end childhood hunger a focus of his final years in office.
Shortly after his inauguration, Deal and governors from 14 other states joined the No Kid Hungry campaign to make the delivery of food aid to hungry kids — more than 700,000 in Georgia alone — work better.
“These programs are underutilized for various reasons — stigma, red tape, transportation challenges and systems — and are too often handled piecemeal by a confusing array of public and private agencies,” Deal wrote in an op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution five years ago.
Sophie said she wants to meet with the governor and get him to double down on that pledge.
“I want to make a big step before he is out of office,” she said.