Wholespire asked for your help, and you delivered! Now that the legislative session is over, we have reason to celebrate wins addressing healthy eating and active living for all South Carolinians. From the state budget, signed by Governor McMaster, to legislative wins addressing free school meals, Wholespire and all of you worked overtime to make sure our decision-makers heard from all of us. You can further support our efforts at the State House by making a donation to our cause.
“We anticipated universal school meals and the USDA community eligibility program (CEP) would be a hot topic this session,” said Executive Director Meg Stanley. “We also knew we’d partner with the SC Department of Social Services to support their budget requests for the extension of the Healthy Bucks program and a SNAP system overhaul.”
Wholespire aims to increase access to nutritious foods. Knowing the USDA ended the emergency universal free school meals program with the 2022-23 school year, Senator Katrina Shealy, our legislative champion of the year, focused her efforts on the universal free school meals bill and Proviso 1.68, which ended school lunch shaming and closed the gap in providing free school meals.
“We understood that before COVID-19, many parents struggled to pay for their child’s school meals,” said Stanley. “Because the USDA enacted the emergency free school meals program, parents didn’t have to worry about school meal debt, and students weren’t ostracized and food shamed for their parents’ inability to pay. That and our mission alone are why we support Senator Shealy’s bill.”
Senator Shealy pre-filed S.148, calling for all public school children to receive two meals daily while at school. Wholespire staff jumped on the opportunity to advocate for a bill addressing an issue many other states were also considering. Some advocacy efforts included testifying at the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children, talking to the media, urging grassroots advocates to speak to their SC Senator, implementing a social media campaign, and hosting a press conference.
“While S.148 did not pass, the state budget included a proviso that bans meal shaming at schools and closes the gap to provide two meals a day for public school children starting in the 2023-24 school year,” said Stanley. “We still have one year left in this two-year session, and with the momentum we’ve helped build, we are hopeful the bill will pass next year.”
Another big push for Wholespire and its grassroots advocates was the Healthy Bucks Proviso. The SC Department of Social Services (DSS) requested a budget appropriation of $5 million to extend the Healthy Bucks program and $8.7 million to update the outdated computer system used to process SNAP applications, purchases and reimbursements. The two budget requests would help sustain and improve two programs that address the food insecurity of low-income families and senior citizens and would also impact local farmers who sell fresh produce at farmers markets that accept SNAP and participate in the Healthy Bucks program.
Healthy Bucks is an incentive of the SNAP program designed to help low-income families and senior citizens get more affordable and nutritious food at the farmers market. When a family spends $5 on fruit and vegetables, they get $15 in tokens for their next visit.
“Many families rely on their local farmers markets for fresh produce because they may live in a food desert without a grocery store or can’t afford gas to make the 30-mile roundtrip. That’s a reality for one too many families and senior citizens,” said Stanley. “Those are scenarios that lead to poor health choices, poor health outcomes and poor quality of life.”
Wholespire has supported the Healthy Bucks program since its pilot in 2014 by the USC Arnold School of Public Health. During this legislative session, efforts to support Healthy Bucks and SNAP, in addition to grassroots advocates contacting their state legislators, led to the legislature including both DSS requests in the state budget.
“We are grateful for the leadership of Senator Katrina Shealy, DSS and the Budget Conferees for addressing healthy food access in South Carolina,” said Stanley, “not to mention all of our grassroots advocates for supporting these legislative efforts.”
With Governor McMaster’s approval of the budget, Wholespire will continue strategizing and preparing for the 2024 legislative session and keep the momentum building for S.148 and other priorities as they unfold.