The American Rescue Plan did a lot more than make the go-to conversation starter, “Have you received your stimulus check yet?”
The American Rescue Plan was also a win for food and national service. With FoodCorps being a proud partner in the AmeriCorps service network, I decided to speak with Stella Doughty and Kendra Dawsey, two people in our FoodCorps community, to hear what they think the American Rescue Plan’s renewed support for national service will mean for service members. Their insights reveal the importance of this legislation and where we go from here.
What is the American Rescue Plan?
The American Rescue Plan of 2021 is the most recent coronavirus pandemic relief bill passed by Congress to provide support to people and communities around the United States. Signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, the $1.9 trillion legislation aims to provide direct relief to families, support the national vaccination program, boost the economy, and address challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, such as food insecurity.
Why did national service members need additional support?
The American Rescue Plan’s additional $1 billion investment in national service demonstrates the importance of AmeriCorps service members in supporting community needs, particularly during the pandemic. Through the advocacy of the coalition organization Voices for National Service, this additional investment supports not only increasing service member living stipends but also expanding the number of service members serving communities around the nation in the years to come.
“It’s been many, many years that we’ve been advocating for certain elements of [the American Rescue Plan], like, in particular, increasing the living allowance for [service members]. It’s just not a livable wage, and it does not support recruiting a diverse class,” said Stella Doughty, Grant Partnerships Manager at FoodCorps and a FoodCorps alumna. It’s a consideration that Kendra Dawsey — Food Programs Manager of Healthy Chelsea in Massachusetts, FoodCorps site supervisor, and FoodCorps alumna — remembers having during her year of service with FoodCorps in 2016.
Seizing that opportunity to serve in a program like FoodCorps’ can be challenging for people without additional financial resources to sustain themselves during their period of service. As a result of these barriers, young leaders from diverse backgrounds might turn down the opportunity to serve, and existing service members might struggle to fully focus on their service as they work to address any financial difficulties that they have.
Dawsey noted that supporting service members is particularly important during this pandemic.
“The pandemic has negatively affected almost everyone, and that includes service members and their families. So, I think giving support to anyone, and especially service members who are trying to make change in the community and trying to support everyone — I think that’s very, very helpful.”
Why is supporting national service also a win for communities?
An increase in living allowances for service members might, at first glance, seem like it only benefits service members. In reality, the benefits of this investment also promise to diffuse into communities.
When asked why increasing investment in national service and recruiting diverse service members, especially from the communities that FoodCorps serves, is important, this is what Doughty had to say:
“Having shared experiences with the community that [service members] are serving adds that much more value to the service they’re able to provide. The community connections that they bring just being from that place and sharing lived experiences strengthens their service and what they’re able to accomplish, and it also makes their service that much more long lasting — impactful in the moment and impactful in the future.”
Recognizing how familiarity helps with building understanding and trust, Dawsey added, “If you’re from that community, you’re going to more intimately know their needs, the issues that are going on, and you probably have seen some ways to tackle [some of those issues] yourself. And it also helps with familiarity on a very basic level; it helps when making connections.”
In my conversations with Doughty and Dawsey, these stories of impact in the moment and in the future came to light. Dawsey spoke about her first two supervisees, for instance, whose growing connection with the communities in which they served led them to extend their work in those communities beyond their service year.
The support offered by the American Rescue Plan to help in recruiting service members from diverse backgrounds and from the communities that FoodCorps serves seems to hold the great potential of making national service more effective and sustainable.
Where do we go from here?
While the American Rescue Plan seems to be a step in the right direction for service members and communities, more work needs to be done.
From increasing living allowances to a livable wage corresponding to the cost of living in a service member’s location to institutionalizing the role service members play — for instance, by hiring full-time food educators in schools — future legislation has the potential to have an even more meaningful impact in communities.