In the second week of March 2020, at a point when President Donald Trump was busy downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, and many members of Congress were struggling to figure out how to respond to an unprecedented social and economic crisis, US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) knew just what to do.
And she did it.
Omar recognized that children who relied on school lunch programs would go hungry once schools across the country shuttered their doors. “Twenty-two million children rely on federal subsidized meals,” Omar announced on March 11, 2020. “For many kids, it is the only meal they get each day. It is our responsibility to ensure that kids continue to get the meals they need.”
That focus on human need is typical of Omar’s approach to governing. She is ready and willing to use the power of government to care for the most vulnerable people in the United States and around the world.
Omar is one of the most high-profile, and most frequently attacked, members of the US House of Representatives. A refugee from Somalia who is an outspoken advocate for global peace and justice initiatives, she courageously takes on the leadership in both major parties when they compromise with repressive regimes and neglect the human rights commitments she holds dear. That doesn’t always win her friends among political and economic power brokers.
But Omar, the chief whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is also a savvy legislator who knows how to build coalitions to address the needs of vulnerable and neglected Americans, who bridges divides in Congress and gets things done.
That’s something her supporters are focusing on as Omar seeks a third term in an August 9 Democratic/Farmer/Labor Party primary race where she faces an opponent who—with a big boost from donors tied to corporate interests—argues that he would be a more “productive” member of the House. The critique has been embraced by the district’s largest newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which has a history of opposing Omar. In an endorsement this week of the representative’s challenger, former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, the paper’s editorial board dismissed Omar as “a polarizing figure who often is at odds with her own party’s leadership in Washington” and suggested that Omar is a “disconnected” congresswoman.
There’s no question that Omar is willing to speak truth to power. It’s one of her greatest strengths. It’s why Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders calls her “one of the most extraordinary people in American politics.” It’s also why she’s been endorsed for reelection by Peace Action, the Sunrise Movement, the Working Families Party, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and the NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC. But the argument that she’s not engaged with issues that matter for his constituents rings hollow. In fact, Omar is one of the hardest working and most strategically astute members of the House, as her work to alleviate hunger—a vital and immediate issue in her district and nationally—illustrates.
Back in March 2020, Omar proposed the Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students (MEALS) Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that allowed the US Department of Agriculture to grant waivers so that schools closed by the pandemic could keep feeding children. The fight was and is personal for her and for her constituents. She explained in a July 1 op-ed:
When I was a child living in a refugee camp, I distinctly remember the vacant feeling of going to bed on an empty stomach when my family didn’t have enough food to eat. I remember the weakness, the inability to concentrate and the desperation for it to end.
Recently, I heard from Will, a high school student in my Minneapolis district, who faces similar challenges in a very different context. The pandemic exacerbated already tight family finances. As a result, he often goes to school without breakfast and finds it difficult to concentrate. “When I’m in class, my lunch isn’t until 1:00,” he told me. “I’ll just be sitting there like, ‘Oh my gosh, when is lunch gonna come,’ because I haven’t eaten all day.”
No child should go through this.
The plan Omar developed as the pandemic took hold was designed to cut through red tape at the federal, state, and local levels by making the breakfast-and-lunch plan universal and cost-free for families. After gathering cosponsors, including Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge, who would become President Biden’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Omar lobbied fellow members of House Education and Labor Committee. She secured support from the committee and then succeeded in having her plan approved as part of the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
But Omar didn’t stop there.
She fought to maintain the initiative, even as the Trump administration sought to end it. She secured extensions of the program because, as she noted last month,
The results were a resounding success in Minnesota and across the country. The MEALS Act gives schools the flexibility to make changes to their meal program to ensure their ability to provide meals to students by allowing the increase of federal costs for the purpose of providing meals. Approximately 22 million kids relied on school meals before the pandemic, and it’s estimated that the MEALS Act and resulting waivers helped an additional 10 million get fed. It also kept people employed preparing and delivering food for kids who need it.
That’s no small accomplishment, for her constituents and for families across the United States. Omar’s policy-savvy longtime aide, Jeremy Slevin, describes the anti-hunger initiative as “quite possibly one of the most successful expansions of social welfare in decades.”
“It’s hard to overstate how big a deal this is,” said Slevin, who has been touting the MEALS Act as an example of the dozens of House bills and amendments Omar has gotten passed since her election to the House in 2018. “Many legislators spend their whole careers trying to pass one policy this consequential (and fail!). She did it in her first term, with a Republican President.”
The representative hasn’t let up. She’s scrambling to secure another extension of the universal free school lunch program. And she promises to continue fighting to eradicate hunger—pledging to seize every opening “to be visionary, bold and loud about what our better tomorrow looks like.”
Omar knows that this is how a member of Congress can accomplish big things, because that’s exactly what she has done.