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P-EBT Gives States an Important Way to Help Hungry Children

Massachusetts yesterday became the first state to receive federal approval to issue benefits through the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program to replace the free or reduced-price meals that children are missing at school during this school year, but every other state has the authority and experience to begin issuing P-EBT benefits as well.

That’s especially needed as the nation awaits further federal aid, as part of a year-end economic relief package that policymakers are negotiating, to help address dire food insecurity — with, for instance, yesterday’s Census data showing 5 million more adults reporting that their household didn’t have enough to eat in recent weeks than in late August and 7 to 13 million children living in households in which children didn’t eat enough because the household couldn’t afford it.

P-EBT provided billions of dollars in benefits to compensate for school meals missed last spring, preventing food insecurity from growing even worse. Implementing a new program during a pandemic required extraordinary efforts by state officials across human service agencies, education departments, and school districts.

It will be even more complicated this school year, however, due to the varying combinations of virtual and in-person instruction that schools are offering. That’s why policymakers provided more program flexibility when they extended the program under this fall’s government funding legislation.

With experience running the program for last spring, states have learned what worked well and what they could improve. In partnership with the Food Research & Action Center, we documented states’ approaches and reflections in reports, state profiles, case studies, and a resource library.

This school year generally started in August or September, so children who aren’t attending school in person are already overdue for three or four months’ worth of meals. That’s likely contributing to the alarming share of children without enough to eat: estimates range from 1 in 6 households 1 in 6 householdswith children to 1 in 4 families with school-age children who cannot afford enough to eat.

While some children are attending school in person, at least part time, roughly 6 in 10 families with children enrolled in school have reported that their children were not receiving any school meals. School districts are understandably focused on providing meals to the students attending school in person and others who can pick them up. But districts can play an important role in reaching the children who are learning virtually by providing the information that states need to identify children eligible for P-EBT benefits.

Policymakers extended the program this fall to younger low-income children missing out on meals in child care settings. Many poor families with young children likely haven’t received any new food assistance since the pandemic began because they are disproportionately represented among those who were already poor enough to receive the maximum SNAP benefit — a group that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) deemed ineligible for a SNAP benefit increase under the Families First Act of March.

With Black and Latino adults at least twice as likely as white adults to report that their household did not get enough to eat, the delay in issuing P-EBT benefits is exacerbating longstanding racial inequities by disproportionately consigning Black and Latino children to weeks, if not months, of hunger. States can issue benefits retroactively, but no one can alleviate hunger retroactively.

It’s been more than two months since policymakers extended the P-EBT program and a month since USDA provided implementation guidance. States have what they need to develop a plan and issue benefits. Yesterday’s confirmation that food insecurity remains disturbingly high for families with children reinforces how critical it is for states to take action.