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An Opportunity to Make Summer Childhood Hunger History

April 28, 2021: We’ve updated this post.

This week, the Agriculture Department (USDA) implemented a measure in the American Rescue Plan Act that could transform our nation’s approach to feeding low-income children during the summer. Building on the successful Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program, for the first time, all low-income children will be eligible for grocery benefits to replace school meals while schools are closed for the summer. Along with making other investments in children’s nutrition, President Biden’s American Families Plan would make these kinds of summer grocery benefits available every year, addressing a long-standing problem and building toward an equitable recovery. [ZN1]

Before the pandemic, low-income children could receive free meals at summer activity programs. But only 1 in 7 of the low-income children who rely on free or reduced-price meals during the school year actually received such meals. As a result, children’s food hardship increased during the summer months, and even short periods of food insecurity pose long-term risks for children.

About a decade ago, policymakers launched a demonstration program to see if providing grocery benefits would more effectively reach low-income children. Indeed, supplemental grocery benefits measurably decreased food hardship and improved the quality of children’s diets. Despite its success, funding for this Summer EBT demonstration program has been limited, allowing only a few states to offer it each year.

Meanwhile, in response to children missing out on school meals during the pandemic, policymakers established the P-EBT program, which provides grocery benefits to replace meals children are missing at school and child care because of school closures and remote learning during the school year. During the spring of 2020, state human services, education, and school nutrition staff collaborated to implement this new program, which was ultimately offered by every state, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The program provides benefits on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) cards or similar Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which families can redeem at grocery stores. Children approved for free or reduced-price school meals are eligible, along with some children under 6 in households receiving SNAP benefits this school year.

The number of households reporting that they had difficulty getting enough to eat has declined in recent weeks as other relief has reached low-income families, but it still far exceeds pre-pandemic levels reported in Census Bureau data. Black and Latino households are more likely to report difficulty getting enough to eat, with data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey showing that more than 1 in 5 children in Black and Latino households live in households where children didn’t eat enough in the last week because the household couldn’t afford it, more than three times the rate for white children.

In response to these high levels of food hardship, policymakers extended P-EBT through the summer in a provision of the American Rescue Plan. Built on the successful Summer EBT demonstration program and P-EBT, this extension will let all states provide roughly $375 in grocery benefits over the full summer for each low-income child so families can prepare meals at home.

USDA has offered a straightforward template states can use to extend their school-year P-EBT plans through the summer. If every state participates, nearly 30 million low-income school-age children and another 4 million younger low-income children will qualify for assistance this summer. USDA has estimated how many children will qualify and the amount of assistance that could flow to each state.

The Biden Administration’s American Families Plan includes $25 billion to reduce children’s food hardship and build an equitable recovery by making summer EBT benefits available nationwide in future summers. By enacting this important investment, Congress can make sure summer hunger doesn’t return.