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As Americans prepared to fill their bellies with Thanksgiving bounty, Julián Castro called for making the issue of hunger a national priority and laid out his plan on how he'd do it if elected president.
In his proposal unveiled Wednesday, Castro calls for making lunch free for public school students, ensuring college students are eligible for food stamp benefits and increasing food stamp benefits for children during summer months.
“The reason I put out this plan is I want every single child to not only have the food they need to be healthy and to learn; I want them to have the peace of mind that gives them the confidence to chase their dreams,” Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and former member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, told NBC News.
Castro wants to increase individuals' food stamp benefits — known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — 30 percent, by using a different formula that works in the costs of a nutritious meal. He proposed eliminating SNAP work requirements and improving the Women, Infant and Children’s program.
Castro's plan calls for holders of electronic cards used for food stamp benefits, known as EBT, to be able to use them for online food purchases and food delivery, which he said would help people in rural and underserved areas where grocery stores are scarce.
“Food is a basic human right, like oxygen and water,” Castro said about the plan when he released it on Wednesday. The nation has a moral obligation to ensure no one goes hungry and everyone has the nourishment to thrive, he said.
Castro said hunger in the United States is not only a symptom of poverty and inequality, but also of the failure of the country to make it a national priority.
One in seven children, roughly the population of Ohio, which is 11.7 million people, suffer from hunger. Rural counties and African American and Latino households are more likely to deal with hunger or be at risk of food scarcity.
"The grocery list was limited"
At times in his childhood, Julián Castro saw his mom shorten the grocery list in the lean times to make sure they could pay the month’s bills.
The 2020 presidential candidate is hesitant to elaborate on personal experiences because he says there also were times when his family did fine. But in the lean times, an adolescent Castro absorbed and felt the anxiety of money running out before the month ended.
“The grocery list was limited. There where months when the electricity got turned off,” Castro told NBC News. “One of my earliest memories is of a family friend bringing a box with food in it from the food bank.”
Castro was raised by a single mother and grandmother. He considers his family lucky to have benefited from government assistance programs such as Medicare for his grandmother and Pell grants for him and his twin brother U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro.
Money got tight when his father and mother split up when Castro was 8.
“Dad’s occasional and modest financial support was often a lifeline, but he had also shared a credit card with Mom and had left her with a lot of debt,” Castro wrote in his memoir “An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up From My American Dream.”
Castro said he remembers his mother losing her hair when he was about 11.
“Doctors chalked that up to stress and I believe it was the stress of providing for my brother and me at the time,” he said.
The experience underscores how hunger is connected to so many other aspects of life, physical and mental health, learning and ability to earn a living and do a job among other things.
Castro's plan includes identifying food deserts — areas without any grocery stores or places to buy nutritious food, usually in minority and rural communities — and making them eligible for federal grants and support, including more community and government-run grocery stores, farmers markets and food banks.
“Hunger is a complex problem, intertwined with inequities of race, class, gender and geography, and we will only overcome this challenge with a concerted national effort,” Castro stated.
Asked about costs, Castro pointed to his plans for raising revenue. But he also said there is a double standard when it comes to criticism of Democrats for spending on assistance for people who need it..
"Evidence shows that Republicans are spending just as much, but it doesn’t get to the people,” he said. "It goes to the wealthy and the military complex," he said.
President Donald Trump has run up the debt and the national deficit but “people still don’t know how he’s going to pay for it," Castro said. “Voters need to hold everybody to the same standard on all different types of spending."