States Have an Important Opportunity to Address Childhood Hunger This Summer

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT) provides funds on a debit card to help low-income families with children buy groceries. Congress created P-EBT when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools to help children who lost access to free and reduced-price school meals. Recognizing the program’s effectiveness, Congress temporarily extended and expanded it to cover younger children and the summer months.[1] With this summer approaching, states have an important opportunity to mitigate a seasonal increase in child hunger by acting now to ensure that they will be able to issue summer P-EBT benefits to families in need.

To offer summer P-EBT benefits, states must complete a straightforward process that includes two steps:

  • Submitting a school-year plan. First, states need an approved P-EBT plan for school year 2021-2022 for school-age children or for children under age 6. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made a template available to state agencies for the plan for children under 6, which simplifies the process. An approved plan allows states to issue school-year P-EBT benefits for these younger children and unlocks summer P-EBT benefits for low-income children of all ages.
  • Submitting a summer plan. Second, states need an approved P-EBT plan for summer 2022. USDA recently issued guidance on summer P-EBT plans, so states now can develop and submit their school year and summer P-EBT plans in tandem.[2] While preparing a summer P-EBT plan does require some additional work by state agencies, the requirements for summer plans are similar to those from last summer, which should make the plans’ development less time-consuming.

By participating in summer P-EBT, states can provide resources to families to make up for the meals their children usually eat in school during the school year. Summer P-EBT benefits can help mitigate the seasonal rise in childhood hunger due to traditional summer meals programs reaching significantly fewer low-income children than the number of children who receive free or reduced-price meals at school.

This year, many low-income families are also struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food, younger children are receiving fewer meals in child care settings, and households may be losing other pandemic-related assistance that has helped them access food over the last two years.

Summer P-EBT is a highly effective strategy to reduce food hardship among families with children. If all states participate, the program could provide over $13 billion in fully federally funded benefits to more than 36 million children nationwide.[3] (See Table 1.)

Summer P-EBT Is an Effective Strategy to Address Childhood Hunger

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 pandemic-related closures and reduced attendance. The program provides benefits on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) cards or similar EBT cards, which families can redeem at grocery stores.

To issue benefits to families, a state must submit a state plan to USDA for approval. While it has been challenging for states to implement an entirely new program that requires cross-agency collaboration during a pandemic, all states did so and provided P-EBT benefits to school-age children for the spring of 2020, when almost all schools were closed for in-person instruction.

Building on the success of the initial P-EBT program, Congress expanded the program in 2021 to make low-income children of all ages eligible for grocery benefits to replace school meals while schools were closed for the summer. Every state but one issued summer P-EBT benefits for the summer of 2021. The program remains in effect for the summer of 2022, but will expire following the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Summer P-EBT Can Improve Food Security and Nutritional Outcomes

P-EBT benefits are very effective at reducing food hardship for families with children. P-EBT benefits issued for the 2020-2021 school year reduced the share of families reporting that children in their household didn’t have enough to eat (the most severe form of food hardship, known as very low food security) by 17 percent, one analysis found. The program also reduced the share of households reporting that there was sometimes or often not enough food in the household (food insufficiency) by 28 percent.[4]

Prior to the pandemic, summer EBT demonstration projects operated every summer since 2011. An evaluation of these demonstration projects found that they were highly effective at improving both food security and nutritional outcomes for participating children. Summer EBT reduced very low food insecurity by one-third, and participating children ate greater amounts of healthy fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.[5] But funding for the demonstration was limited, allowing only several states to offer it each year. The effectiveness of these demonstration projects has led to strong bipartisan interest in permanently authorizing and expanding summer EBT, with several proposals to do so introduced in both chambers of Congress.[6]

Summer P-EBT Is Accessible for Low-Income Families

Summer P-EBT’s structure avoids many of the barriers that can make participating in traditional summer meals programs challenging for families. Because the benefit is provided on an EBT card that can be redeemed at the roughly 250,000 retailers authorized to accept SNAP benefits nationwide, families can easily use summer P-EBT to augment their food purchases when they do their usual grocery shopping.[7] Families participating in the pre-pandemic summer EBT pilots redeemed nearly all — 98 percent — of the benefits they received, a strong indication that families could access this assistance easily.[8]

Food Insecurity Among Children Typically Increases in the Summer

In 2019, nearly 30 million children were approved for free or reduced-price school lunches. But many of these children struggle to access nutritious food when school lets out for the summer. Reflecting the absence of school meals, studies have shown that households with school-aged children experience higher rates of food hardship during the summer months.[9]

Existing Summer Meals Programs Have Limited Reach

The federal summer meal programs play an important role in reducing food hardship and connecting children with enrichment activities. When summer meals are available, they are associated with a lower probability that children experience very low food security.[10] However, meals provided through the Summer Food Service Program and summer meals provided by schools through the National School Lunch Program reach just 1 child for every 7 children who rely on free or reduced-price meals during the school year.[11]

Summer meals programs feed children in a group setting, typically alongside education or enrichment activities. As a result, families with transportation challenges or work schedules that conflict with mealtimes may not be able to participate. In addition, summer meal sites are generally limited to areas with high numbers of low-income children, which means that low-income families do not necessarily have a meal site in their community. These barriers can be particularly challenging in rural areas, where children may live a significant distance from a summer meals site. Participation in summer meals programs varies across states, with some states providing summer meals to 1 child for every 4 children who receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year, and other states providing summer meals to fewer than 1 child for every 10.[12]

Summer Hunger Has Immediate and Long-Term Consequences for Children

There is substantial evidence that experiencing food insecurity during childhood, even for short periods, can negatively impact a child’s health, well-being, and educational attainment. Children’s reading and math skills often regress during the summer months, and this “summer slide” may be greater for students in low-income families.[13] Conversely, participation in programs that help low-income children access nutritious meals is associated with better health and improved economic outcomes in adulthood.[14]

Many Low-Income Families With Children Will Struggle to Meet Their Food Needs This Summer

Food hardship fell sharply after pandemic relief measures were implemented in late 2020 and early 2021, but it has been rising since the summer of 2021, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey found. Among households with children, nearly 12 million adults reported in early May 2022 that their households didn’t have enough to eat during the previous week, an increase of 4.1 million from early August 2021.[15] In addition, the shares of Black and Latino families with children who report not having enough to eat are consistently two to three times higher than the share of white families with children.

While the pandemic’s impact on schools, workplaces, and the broader economy has evolved over the last two years, several factors may increase the likelihood that low-income families with children will experience food insecurity this summer.

Families Are Struggling to Keep Up With Increasing Food Costs

Many low-income families are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food and other necessities. Consumer prices for food at home increased by 9.4 percent between April 2021 and April 2022, and the cost of other essentials like gasoline and electricity has also risen sharply over the last year.[16] Low-income households are disproportionately affected by higher food prices as they spend a much greater share of their income on food than more affluent households. In 2020, households in the lowest income quintile spent 27 percent of their income on food, compared to only 7 percent among households in the highest income quintile.[17]

In addition, low-income households often lack savings or other resources that could help cushion the impact of a higher grocery bill on their household budget. Moreover, while SNAP benefits are adjusted for inflation in food costs, the adjustment lags and the purchasing power of SNAP benefits declines during periods of relatively high inflation.[18]

Younger Children Are Receiving Fewer Meals in Child Care Settings

Meals provided in child care settings through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) are an important source of nutrition for younger children in low-income families. During the pandemic, CACFP has provided far fewer lunches in child care settings than in prior years. In fiscal years 2020 and 2021 the program served 25 percent fewer lunches in child care centers and day care homes than in fiscal year 2019, and the number of lunches served has not begun to rebound in 2022.[19] This may reflect ongoing pandemic-related disruptions in the child care sector. Because younger children are receiving fewer meals in child care, it is particularly important that states submit P-EBT plans for this group for school year 2021-2022 and for the summer.

Other Pandemic-Related Aid That Has Helped Low-Income Families Access Food Is Ending

Congress authorized several policies in addition to P-EBT that have helped families access food over the last two years. Some of these policies, such as Economic Impact (stimulus) payments, enhanced unemployment insurance, and the expanded Child Tax Credit have already expired, and much of the remaining pandemic-related assistance will end in the coming months.

  • In the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted March 18, 2020, Congress authorized USDA to facilitate children’s access to meals by issuing nationwide waivers of some nutrition program requirements.[20] These waivers helped children access summer meals by, for example, allowing parents to pick up multiple grab-and-go meals at once instead of requiring children to eat each meal on-site. These waivers also allowed program sponsors to open summer meals sites in communities that would not usually qualify to host one. Even with these additional flexibilities, however, summer meals sites did not have the same reach as P-EBT, and these nationwide waivers are set to expire on June 30, 2022.[21] While states can request more limited waivers of certain summer meals program requirements, it is likely that many families will lose access to summer meals as these flexibilities expire.[22]
  • Families First also authorized USDA and states to provide monthly emergency allotments for households participating in SNAP, but a growing number of states have discontinued these additional benefits. In May 2022, at least 14 states did not issue emergency allotments, and these emergency allotments will end nationwide following the end of the federal public health emergency.[23] When emergency allotments end, the average monthly SNAP benefit per person will fall by about $80 per person.[24]

States Can Use a Straightforward Process to Ensure Summer P-EBT Will Be Available to Children in Need

As described above, to issue P-EBT benefits, states must submit plans to USDA for approval. These plans became more complicated for states in the fall of 2020 as hybrid school schedules became more common. However, summer P-EBT does not present the same challenges and will be much more straightforward for states to plan and administer since all school-age children who are approved for free or reduced-price school meals qualify for summer P-EBT and the benefit amount can be the same for every child.

States must complete two steps to be eligible to offer P-EBT benefits for the summer of 2022. While there is no deadline for states to submit their P-EBT plans, by acting quickly states can issue benefits as close as possible to when families need them.

School-year plan. First, states need an approved P-EBT plan for school year 2021-2022 for school-age children or for children under age 6. As of mid-May 2022, USDA had approved P-EBT plans for more than half of states for school year 2021-2022, though only a handful had plans approved for both school-age children and children under age 6.[25] While more states have submitted plans for USDA review, some states have had difficulty developing a P-EBT plan for school-age children. For example, collecting student-level data on absences and whether absences are related to COVID-19 has proven challenging as schools have largely returned to in-person instruction.

USDA recently began approving school year 2021-2022 P-EBT plans for children under age 6. Developing plans for these younger children is more straightforward than the plans for school-age children. Children must receive SNAP benefits to qualify, which means the benefits can be added to their household’s SNAP EBT card without the family having to apply or requiring the state to issue a new EBT card. In addition, states can use data that they already collect on CACFP participation to determine benefit levels (see box below). Moreover, USDA has made a template with the necessary CACFP data available to state agencies, which makes developing the plan easier. Using this simple process can allow states to issue school-year P-EBT benefits for these younger children and unlock summer P-EBT benefits for low-income children of all ages.

Summer plan. Second, states need an approved P-EBT plan for summer 2022. On May 9, 2022, USDA issued guidance on how states can develop their summer P-EBT plans.[26] While no states have yet received approval for a summer 2022 P-EBT plan, almost every state participated in summer P-EBT last summer and the requirements for 2022 summer plans are very similar to 2021, which should make developing them less time-consuming.

While both steps are required for a state to issue summer P-EBT benefits, states need not wait for their school year P-EBT plan to be approved before they develop their summer P-EBT plan. If a state does not yet have a school year plan approved, USDA will permit the state to submit both a school-year and a summer plan for review simultaneously.

States Can Submit a School-Year 2021-2022 P-EBT Plan for Children Under Age 6 to Become Eligible to Provide Summer EBT Benefits

School-year P-EBT for children under age 6 is intended to replace meals that these children would otherwise receive in a child care setting if not for pandemic-related closures or disruptions. Meals served to low-income children in child care are reimbursed through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

States can estimate the pandemic’s impact on meals served in child care facilities by comparing:

  • CACFP lunch claims for day care homes and child care centers in their state during a given month in a pre-pandemic base year, and
  • CACFP lunch claims for day care homes and child care centers in their state during the same month in the current school year.

If CACFP participation in the current school year is lower than participation in the pre-pandemic base year, the state can issue P-EBT benefits, prorated based on the difference, to children who are:

  • Under 6 years old (states can use a cut-off date, e.g., as of September 1, 2021);
  • Receiving SNAP benefits; and
  • Not also receiving P-EBT benefits for school-age children.

For example, if CACFP lunch claims for the months in a state’s fall semester declined by 25 percent compared to the same period in the pre-pandemic base year, a state could use the following benefit calculation:

  • 25 percent decline in CACFP lunch claims x
  • $7.10 P-EBT daily benefit x
  • Average number of school instructional days (e.g., 180 days in a school year ÷ 10 months = 18 days per month)
  • = Monthly benefit of $31.95 per child for the fall semester

Source: USDA Template for P-EBT Child Care Plans for SY2021-2022

States Can Reach Millions of Low-Income Children With Summer P-EBT

Summer P-EBT benefits have the potential to reach most low-income children. Because nearly all schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, most low-income school-age children are approved for free or reduced-price school meals. Moreover, 85 percent of eligible households receive SNAP, a criterion for children under age 6 to receive P-EBT benefits.[27]

States can reach some 36 million low-income children this year if they offer summer P-EBT benefits, based on 2021 state plans for issuing summer P-EBT benefits. The number of children eligible for summer P-EBT this coming summer and the amount of benefits they qualify for are likely to be similar to the summer of 2021.[28] (See Table 1.)

TABLE 1
Children Served and Benefits Issued for Summer P-EBT by State, 2021
  Estimated Number of School-Age Children Served Estimated Number of Children Under Age 6 Served Total Estimated Benefit Issuance for School-Age Children Total Estimated Benefit Issuance for Children Under Age 6
Alabama 475,500 135,000 $178,312,500 $50,625,000
Alaska 68,320 3,500 $41,265,280 $2,114,000
Arizona 750,000 150,000 $281,250,000 $56,250,000
Arkansas 278,065 47,227 $104,274,375 $17,710,125
California 4,000,045 1,000,062 $1,500,016,875 $375,023,250
Colorado 355,000 70,000 $133,125,000 $26,250,000
Connecticut 290,000 43,000 $108,750,000 $16,125,000
Delaware 110,000 19,056 $37,537,500 $7,146,000
District of Columbia 73,000 12,000 $27,375,000 $4,500,000
Florida 2,191,308 602,248 $821,740,500 $225,843,000
Georgia 856,460 257,921 $321,172,500 $96,720,375
Hawai’i 97,988 24,700 $42,918,744 $10,818,600
Idaho* 125,000 n/a $45,875,000 n/a
Illinois 1,188,369 336,395 $445,638,375 $126,148,125
Indiana 606,000 120,550 $227,250,000 $45,206,250
Iowa 270,000 28,277 $101,250,000 $10,603,875
Kansas 220,000 31,000 $82,500,000 $11,625,000
Kentucky 580,000 40,000 $217,500,000 $15,000,000
Louisiana 699,000 104,000 $262,125,000 $39,000,000
Maine 70,196 36,192 $26,323,500 $13,572,000
Maryland 465,000 87,000 $174,375,000 $32,625,000
Massachusetts 665,100 88,642 $249,412,500 $33,240,750
Michigan** - - - -
Minnesota 285,583 100,000 $126,513,269 $44,300,000
Mississippi* 345,000 n/a $129,375,000 n/a
Missouri 288,988 150,028 $108,370,500 $56,260,500
Montana 75,000 22,548 $28,125,000 $8,455,500
Nebraska 150,000 27,454 $56,250,000 $10,295,250
Nevada 337,871 58,634 $126,701,625 $21,987,750
New Hampshire 45,323 9,674 $16,996,125 $3,627,750
New Jersey 966,000 846,000 $317,250,000 $45,000,000
New Mexico 366,547 100,000 $99,955,125 $37,500,000
New York 2,500,000 236,000 $937,500,000 $88,500,000
North Carolina 1,012,000 200,000 $379,500,000 $75,000,000
North Dakota* n/a n/a n/a n/a
Ohio 873,057 220,310 $327,396,375 $82,616,250
Oklahoma 350,000 68,966 $131,250,000 $25,862,250
Oregon 342,040 87,960 $133,053,560 $34,216,440
Pennsylvania 992,850 225,561 $372,318,750 $84,585,375
Rhode Island 106,116 14,205 $39,793,500 $5,326,875
South Carolina 433,229 117,368 $162,460,875 $44,013,000
South Dakota 58,500 20,480 $21,937,500 $7,680,000
Tennessee 765,000 137,694 $286,875,000 $51,635,250
Texas 2,900,705 800,000 $1,087,764,375 $300,000,000
Utah** - - - -
Vermont 39,000 7,236 $14,625,000 $2,713,500
Virginia 675,597 114,497 $253,348,875 $42,936,375
Washington 520,000 140,000 $195,000,000 $52,500,000
West Virginia 222,395 35,463 $83,398,125 $13,298,625
Wisconsin 233,000 96,243 $87,375,000 $36,091,125
Wyoming 29,370 4,826 $11,013,750 $1,809,750
Total 29,347,522 7,077,917 $10,964,134,978 $2,392,357,915

* Idaho and Mississippi did not submit summer P-EBT plans for children under age 6. North Dakota did not submit a summer P-EBT plan for either category.

** Michigan and Utah submitted P-EBT plans for both school-age children and children under 6 but their plans have not been published online.

Source: Food Research & Action Center compilation of data in 2021 State Plans for Summer P-EBT, https://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/Summer-2021-P-EBT-Numbers-1.pdf.

End Notes

[1] Summer P-EBT was authorized in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (P.L. 116-127) and amended in the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extension Act (P.L. 116-159), Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (P.L. 116-260), and American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (P.L. 117-2). This paper refers to P-EBT plans for “children under age 6,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also refers to as “child care” plans. However, these P-EBT benefits are available to children under age 6 who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) regardless of whether they are enrolled in a child care facility.

[2] Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), USDA, “Pandemic EBT – Summer 2022,” May 9, 2022, https://www.fns.usda.gov/SNAP/pandemic-ebt-summer-2022-memo.

[3] Estimate based on state plans for summer P-EBT in 2021.

[4] Lauren Bauer, Krista Ruffini, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, “An update on the effect of Pandemic EBT on measures of food hardship,” Brookings Institution, September 29, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/research/an-update-on-the-effect-of-pandemic-ebt-on-measures-of-food-hardship/.

[5] Ann M. Collins et al., “Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children (SEBTC) Demonstration: Summary Report,” Abt Associates and Mathematica Policy Research, May 2016, https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/ops/sebtcfinalreport.pdf.

[6] The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act (S.2005) and Stop Child Hunger Act (S.1831/H.R. 3519).

[7] FNS, “Fiscal Year 2021 Year End Summary,” https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/2021-snap-retailer-management-year-end-summary.pdf.

[8] Collins et al., op. cit.

[9] Mark Nord and Kathleen Romig, “Hunger in the Summer: Seasonal food insecurity and the National School Lunch and Summer Food Service programs,” Journal of Children and Poverty, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2006, pp. 141-158, https://doi.org/10.1080/10796120600879582; Jin Huang, Ellen Barnidge, and Youngmi Kim, “Children Receiving Free or Reduced-Price School Lunch Have Higher Food Insufficiency Rates in Summer,” Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 145, No. 9, September 2015, pp. 2161-68, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.115.214486.

[10] Daniel P. Miller, “Accessibility of summer meals and the food insecurity of low-income households with children,” Public Health Nutrition, Vol. 19, No.11, 2016, pp. 2079-89, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980016000033.

[11] Food Research & Action Center, “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report,” August 2020, https://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/FRAC-Summer-Nutrition-Report-2020.pdf

[12] Ibid.

[13] David M. Quinn and Morgan Polikoff, “Summer learning loss: What is it, and what can we do about it?” Brookings Institution, September 14, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/research/summer-learning-loss-what-is-it-and-what-can-we-do-about-it/.

[14] Hilary Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Douglas Almond, “Long-Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net,” American Economic Review, Vol. 106, No. 4, 2016, pp. 903-934, https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.20130375.

[15] CBPP Analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data; https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/household-pulse-survey/datasets.html.

[16] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 1. Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U): U. S. city average, by expenditure category,” updated May 11, 2022, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.t01.htm.

[17] Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Food spending as a share of income declines as income rises,” November 8, 2021, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58372.

[18] SNAP benefit levels are adjusted annually on October 1, but their adjustment is based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan in the preceding June. This means that SNAP benefits in the current month (May 2022) are based on food prices from nearly one year ago (June 2021).

[19] FNS, “February 2022 Keydata Report,” updated May 13, 2022, https://www.fns.usda.gov/data/february-2022-keydata-report; “February 2021 Keydata Report,” updated May 15, 2021, https://www.fns.usda.gov/data/february-2021-keydata-report; and “February 2020 Keydata Report,” updated May 27, 2020, https://www.fns.usda.gov/data/february-2020-keydata-report.

[20] 42 U.S.C § 1760 note.

[21] This waiver authority was extended until September 30, 2021 in the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extensions Act (P.L. 116-159) and was subsequently extended until June 30, 2022 in the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 117-43).

[22] The end of these waivers will also have significant implications for access to free and reduced-price school meals in the 2022-2023 school year. Since March 2020, these waivers have allowed most schools to provide meals to all students at no charge without collecting income information from families, so it is likely that a number of eligible children will lose access to free or reduced-price school meals when the waivers expire and many families must again submit an application to demonstrate eligibility.

[23] FNS, “SNAP COVID-19 Emergency Allotments Guidance,” updated May 10, 2022, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/covid-19-emergency-allotments-guidance.

[24] Stacy Dean, “Thrifty Food Plan Re-evaluation Puts Nutrition in Reach for SNAP Participants,” FNS, August 30, 2021, https://www.fns.usda.gov/tfp/blog-083021.

[25] FNS, “State Guidance on Coronavirus P-EBT,” updated May 10, 2022, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/state-guidance-coronavirus-pandemic-ebt-pebt.

[26] FNS, “Pandemic EBT – Summer 2022,” May 9, 2022, https://www.fns.usda.gov/SNAP/pandemic-ebt-summer-2022-memo.

[27] CBPP, “Policy Basics: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” updated June 25, 2019, https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/the-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap.

[28] The standard P-EBT benefit for summer 2021 was $375 per child in the continental United States. For summer 2022, this standard benefit is $391 per child. Standard benefit amounts are higher for Alaska, Hawai’i, and the territories.