BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The recently released year-end budget legislation includes a permanent Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program to provide grocery benefits to the nation’s low-income families with school-age children when schools are closed for the summer — a historic investment in the nutrition, education, and well-being of some 30 million children.
One element of the proposal — the financing mechanism — is troubling. The new permanent Summer EBT benefit is paid for by ending temporary emergency SNAP benefits (known as emergency allotments) earlier than expected. These emergency SNAP benefits have helped some of those whom the pandemic hit hardest afford groceries, but will now stop at the end of February instead of continuing (in states that would have chosen to do so) as long as the public health emergency is in place. Lawmakers should have looked to other offsets, including the revenue system, rather than ending these temporary food assistance benefits in this manner.
But on the positive side, the Summer EBT program would be the first new permanent federal food assistance program of this magnitude in nearly 50 years. At $40 per child per month (which will be adjusted for inflation over time), the new benefits would mitigate long-standing increases in child hunger the nation sees each summer.
Some 30 million children are approved to receive free or reduced-price school meals. Many of them struggle to access nutritious food when school lets out for the summer. Studies have shown that food hardship rises during the summer for households with school-age children and that such hardship, even when short lived, can harm a child’s long-term health, well-being, and educational attainment.
The current Summer Food Service and National School Lunch programs play an important role in addressing food hardship and connecting children with enrichment activities during the summer. But those programs provide meals to just 1 child for every 7 children who rely on free or reduced-price meals during the school year. As a grocery benefit rather than a meals program, Summer EBT will reach far more children. In addition, the legislation includes new flexibilities that will make it easier to connect children in rural, low-income areas with meals during the summer.
Summer EBT builds on the success of earlier pilots and temporary programs in reducing food hardship and improving nutrition. Pandemic-EBT, a temporary relief measure that has provided grocery benefits to children in families with low incomes during the summers of 2021 and 2022, has been shown to reduce food hardship. Prior to the pandemic, Summer EBT demonstration projects operated each summer since 2011. These projects were highly effective at improving both food security and nutritional outcomes for participating children. At a benefit level comparable to that in the new, permanent program, prior Summer EBT projects reduced rates of very low food security among children by one-quarter, and participating children ate more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
As noted, policymakers should not have financed this important advance in child nutrition by cutting SNAP emergency allotments being provided during the public health emergency. It is important to note, however, that these SNAP emergency allotments are temporary. They have already ended in some states and would have ended nationwide after the end of the public health emergency, regardless of this legislation. The new Summer EBT benefits will be permanent, and will provide critical assistance to some 30 million low-income children every summer going forward, including for all school-age children in families receiving SNAP. On balance this is a tradeoff worth making, even while it highlights the importance of protecting permanent SNAP benefits from cuts and raising revenue from those already prospering to finance investments that broaden opportunity and improve well-being.
Finally, the year-end legislation does not include a reauthorization of all the federal child nutrition programs — long overdue — and thus doesn’t include much-needed measures to modernize and strengthen other nutrition programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and child care meals. Nor does it make it more financially viable for schools serving large numbers of low-income children to offer free school meals to all students through the federal Community Eligibility Provision, key to improving food security during the school year. Policymakers should seek to enact these measures next year to continue to invest in the health and well-being of children in low-income families.