One week after he was left off the Democratic debate stage for the first time this primary season, Julián Castro called for broad expansions to federal food programs, including free breakfast and lunch for all public school students, saying the country had a “moral obligation” to make sure children have enough to eat.
“The right to eat is a human right,” said Mr. Castro, the former federal housing secretary and mayor of San Antonio. “This is an urgent need for too many children. We’ve had a problem in this country with people who are lost in poverty that is stifling.”
The plan comes as most polls show Mr. Castro with the support of between 0 and 1 percent of Democratic primary voters, and as his campaign said it needed 7,500 additional donors to hit the donor requirement for the next debate, scheduled for Dec. 19. His campaign says he has no plans to drop out of the race.
Mr. Castro’s campaign has focused heavily on policies that would help the poor, and recent campaign stops have included touring a sprawling homeless encampment in Oakland, Calif., and a food pantry in Las Vegas.
“In our politics today, we’ve forgotten to talk about the poor as intently as we’ve fought for the middle class,” Mr. Castro said in an interview. “We are focusing on the most vulnerable, the most forgotten, the people who need others fighting for them.”
Other candidates, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker, have proposed providing free meals for all public school children. Mr. Sanders sponsored a Senate bill this year that would provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack in public schools. Mr. Booker’s plan to combat child poverty calls for expanding federal food programs and providing universal free lunch in public schools.
The school lunch program would cost about $19.6 billion a year, money Mr. Castro said he would raise by increasing taxes on those who make more than $40 million and other increases for businesses and wealthy individuals.
As part of the program, Mr. Castro said he would erase all “school lunch debt,” money students owe to schools for meals during the school day. The plan would also provide low-income students with three meals a day during summer vacations.
Mr. Castro has put forth the most ambitious and substantive plan to address hunger from a presidential candidate in decades, said Joel Berg, the chief executive of Hunger Free America, whom the campaign consulted with on the plan.
“This is really making clear that public policy is the way to address this, not giving the same misleading perception that charity can play a bigger role,” Mr. Berg said. “The cost would be a scintilla of money as the Republican tax cuts.”
Mr. Castro’s plan calls for increasing benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, by at least 30 percent for each family. The Trump administration has moved repeatedly to cut funding to the program.
Mr. Castro’s proposed expansion would enable families to use the assistance to buy hot, precooked food, which is prohibited under existing rules, and to buy food online. He would eliminate the requirement for SNAP recipients to prove that they are working or are looking for a job, which Mr. Castro dismissed as “unnecessary bureaucratic hassles.”
“You don’t need to make people jump through hoops to help them,” he said. “I don’t want children to go hungry because their parents didn’t go through a certain process. If they have food on the table, they are going to be more likely to look for a job, rather than the other way around.”
College students, who are increasingly relying on food pantries, would also benefit from the change in the work requirement, Mr. Castro said.
Mr. Castro said he would formally designate some areas as “food deserts,” awarding them federal grants that could be used to open grocery stores run by local governments.
Mr. Castro has frequently spoken about growing up poor in San Antonio, where he was raised by a single mother who often struggled to pay the bills.
“As a child, I saw the grocery list get shorter and shorter as our family budget got tighter and tighter,” he said. “I still vividly remember my mom’s panic when her hair started falling out due to the stress of putting food on the table.”
Mr. Castro, who spent the last debate responding to the moderators’ questions online, said he was still hopeful that he would make the cut in December, even though he had yet to meet either the donor or polling requirement.
In the interview, Mr. Castro also took aim at former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, a billionaire who entered the primary on Sunday and has made clear that he will spend heavily from his personal fortune to compete. He has said he will not accept campaign donations, meaning under the current rules he is unlikely to qualify for future primary debates.
“I don’t think Democrats are looking for the billionaire candidate for president,” Mr. Castro said. “There’s no doubt that being on the debate stage helps get your message out,” he added, suggesting that Mr. Bloomberg was avoiding “the scrutiny of that stage.”
“It’s like a Rose Garden strategy without the Rose Garden,” he added. “Maybe call it the Manhattan condo strategy.”