Biden proposes 16 percent increase in child nutrition outlays

The Biden administration’s proposals to expand a summer food program for school-age children and to encourage schools in high-poverty areas to provide meals for free to all students would add an average $4 billion a year to the cost of USDA’s child nutrition programs. Headlined by school lunch, the child nutrition programs, are estimated to cost $25.2 billion this fiscal year so the Biden package would be 16 percent increase, according to budget data.

Expansion of the Summer EBT program would cost $17.3 billion and greater participation in the Community Eligibility Provision  would cost $25.8 billion for a combined $44.1 billion over a decade, said the USDA’s budget book. It was one of the first times a price tag has been attached to the initiatives.

Hunger rates have improved since the worst of the pandemic but food hardship remains above pre-pandemic levels in households with children, said Zoe Neuberger of the think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “Let’s get these and other important provisions in the president’s budget enacted to help ensure that low-income children get enough nutritious food every day of the year,” she said on social media following release of Biden’s budget package on Friday.

Because the pandemic disrupted teaching in the classroom, the USDA has given schools permission to serve meals for free to all students through the 2021-22 academic year and it will provide so-called P-EBT assistance to low-income families with school-age children during the summer. Democratic lawmakers filed companion House and Senate bills last week to make EBT benefits available to low-income children whenever schools are closed, including winter or for remote instruction.

Enrollment in the premiere U.S. anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was forecast at 45.4 million people during fiscal 2022, the highest average since 45.8 million in 2015. Participation was forecast at 43.9 million this year. It was 35.7 million during fiscal 2019, before the pandemic.

“SNAP will continue to respond to economic need,” said the USDA, noting that participation typically crests after the peak of an economic crisis. “While participation is expected to increase, the overall cost of the program is expected to decrease” with the expiration of emergency assistance, such as the temporary 15 percent increase in benefits. The average benefit is expected to be $164 per person per month in fiscal 2022, a decrease of $23 this year.

The administration put its emphasis on expansion of child nutrition programs, hoping to convert stopgap measures such as summertime P-EBT into permanent changes. The last overhaul of child nutrition was in 2010. Lawmakers hope to update the programs later this year or in 2022, despite repeated deadlocks in recent years.

“School meals are one of the most powerful tools for promoting health and ensuring nutrition security among children, which is why the president’s plan will expand free meals in high-poverty schools, with a particular focus on elementary schools so kids start on the right path from an early age,” said the USDA in discussing the proposed expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision.

Similarly, the proposed expansion of the Summer EBT program, would help low-income parents buy groceries for their school-age children, would reduce food insecurity when school is not in session, said the USDA. Less than 1 in 5 eligible children — those who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school — get meals through the existing summer food programs.