In 2008 the nation suffered its largest one-year decline in median income since 1967, and the largest one-year increase in poverty since 1991, a US Census report announced last week.

The Economic Policy Institute called these statistics just the tip of the iceberg–since the economy continues to hemorrhage jobs and the report takes into account less than one-quarter of the total rise in unemployment through August 2009.

The report from the Census Bureau didn’t reveal anything anti-hunger advocates don’t already know. Families who never struggled with hunger now need help for the first time, and families who rarely used food shelves in the past are visiting on a monthly basis, just to get by.

“In suburbs which have always been fairly wealthy in Minnesota, we see sometimes 100, 104 percent increases in the number of people visiting food shelves,” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota. “People who have never visited before, who find themselves unemployed, who have run through their unemployment insurance, or any kind of savings account they have…. People just run through all their options.”

That’s why Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison’s legislation to increase eligibility for free school lunches is so timely. It will likely be introduced next week, and Senator Al Franken of Minnesota will sponsor a companion bill in the Senate.

Ellison’s bill would allow children in families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty line–$40,793 for a family of four–access to free school lunches. The current cutoff is 130 percent of the poverty line, with some students from families earning more eligible for reduced-price meals that they often can’t afford. In Minnesota, the bill would allow an additional 54,000 low-income children to receive free lunches.

A second bill sponsored by Ellison would make it illegal for school districts to take steps to punish or stigmatize kids when their families aren’t current on their meal payments. It would prohibit practices like using collection agencies to go after the families, or giving a student only a cheese sandwich, or stopping someone from graduating.

“Poverty is not a character defect; it’s a temporary economic setback for parents,” said Ellison, a vice chair of the Progressive Caucus. “This program is designed to help kids focus on their education, and to stay in school–not be singled out because of their misfortune.”

“It’s about return on investment,” Franken said. “There should be no bigger priority than the well-being of our children. A kid who’s hungry can’t learn, can’t grow, and can’t realize her potential. This is just one of the common-sense steps we can take to make sure they’re prepared for a twenty-first-century economy.”

The bills in all likelihood will be taken up as part of the Child Nutrition Act. It comes up for reauthorization every five years and is set to expire on September 30. Ellison is introducing his bills now to try to frame the debate on child nutrition from a progressive point of view.

The Child Nutrition Act covers school lunch and breakfast programs; the Summer Food Service Program; the Child and Adult Care Food Program; and the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). President Obama has proposed a $1 billion annual increase in funding to strengthen the programs–in line with his commitment to end childhood hunger by 2015.

The question now is whether Congress will follow the lead of the president and legislators like Keith Ellison and Al Franken–both of whom will seek cosponsors after their bills are introduced. Minh Ta, legislative director for Representative Ellison, is confident the final reauthorization will include “elements of these bills.” Crystal FitzSimons, director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), said the Ellison and Franken bills reflect a vital piece of a comprehensive reauthorization effort.

“FRAC’s focus on child nutrition reauthorization is to ensure that more lower-income children have access to nutritious meals, whether they’re at school, whether they’re in child care, or summer programs, or after school programs,” FitzSimons said. “We feel they need access to nutritious meals and snacks–especially now when so many families are struggling under the weight of the recession.”

“We need to be just as responsive with this kind of legislation as we were with the stimulus package, or Cash-for-Clunkers, or anything else,” Moriarty observed. “There just is an enormous amount of scientific evidence that says if children are hungry they are distracted, and have learning disabilities, and have issues about their ability to retain information…. It’s one of the reasons that there have been emergency food programs in this country.”

“Hungry minds cannot learn on empty stomachs,” Ellison agreed.

Contact your representatives and senators and tell them to cosponsor the Ellison and Franken bills–important bills that will expand the federal school lunch program so that all kids will have access to the nutritious meals they need.