Child-hunger advocates hope Biden’s expansion of P-EBT becomes a permanent solution to summer food needs

The Agriculture Department on Tuesday announced plans to launch the most significant summer food program in U.S. history, expanding a pandemic-era benefit to feed more than 30 million children over the summer break. Now, anti-hunger advocates are hoping to leverage the expansion into a permanent summer benefits program, a longstanding goal that would fill a gap in food access when school is out.

Pandemic-EBT was established when Covid-19 shut schools down last March, providing families with funds to make up for meals their children would have eaten at school. Through the American Rescue Act, the benefits — which were set to expire at the end of September — will not only continue for the duration of the pandemic, but will also be available during the summer months. Until now, families could only participate in P-EBT during the academic year.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hailed it as “a first-of-its-kind, game-changing intervention to reduce child hunger in the United States.”

Food insecurity among families with children remains high; more than 11 percent said they “sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat” in a Census survey from late March, the most recent data available. But even before the pandemic, the summer months were tough, particularly for low-income children who, without school meals, often went hungry. Although summer feeding programs attempt to fill the gap, they reach just a small fraction of kids — fewer than 20 percent of those served while school is in session. P-EBT cards should address this gap, as the burden will no longer be on families to find out about summer feeding programs or arrange childcare or time off work to pick up the free meals.

Under the expanded P-EBT, more than 34 million kids will receive benefits cards with up to $375 — around $7 each weekday — to be used on food during this summer break. Advocates say it’s a critical step that should serve as a model well beyond the public health emergency. As Congress begins reviewing and reauthorizing the entire spectrum of federal child-nutrition programs this year, they are calling for national policies that prioritize long-term funding for EBT programs during school breaks.

“This is a huge opportunity to reduce childhood hunger and improve childhood nutrition this summer,” said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research & Action Center. “The success of P-EBT points to the need to create an EBT program for kids that kicks in when they lose access to food served at school. Now that every single state has an EBT program set up, we think it provides the perfect opportunity to create a permanent program.”

Lisa Davis, vice president of No Kid Hungry, said the USDA’s expansion “just makes sense. Before the pandemic, only about 1 in 7 children who received free or low-cost school meals was able to access meals in the summer due in part to challenges like transportation, scheduling and even weather.” By providing direct benefits to families, P-EBT “helps to overcome these challenges and get food to kids.”

Access to food during the summer will be critical in making up for a year of learning loss, Davis added, making P-EBT a “strong return on investment.”

Advocates have been calling for expanded Summer EBT for more than a decade. The program was first piloted in 2011 as a way to complement summer meal offerings with a benefits card that families can use on their own schedule. The pilot’s success — a drop in food insecurity among low-income kids, increased access to fruits and vegetables and high participation levels — led to further congressional funding. By 2018, Summer EBT had reached 300,000 kids in eight states. But the program remains piecemeal, leaving out the majority of states.

A permanent, national Summer EBT program would be critical for low-income kids who do not have access to academic and other enrichment programs when school is out. Although EBT does not restrict what foods can be purchased, evaluations of Summer EBT indicate that the additional funds lead to healthier eating — an urgent goal, with childhood obesity soaring. “We know that if you give families additional resources for food, it improves nutrition quality,” FitzSimons said.

Some elements of Congress’ Child Nutrition Reauthorization effort, such as dietary standards for school meals, are already proving to be politically contentious. But Republicans and Democrats have expressed support for long-term Summer EBT. Sen. John Boozman, the ranking Repulican on the Agriculture Committee, has in the past backed legislation to bolster Summer EBT. “We need to capture more young people in the summer,” he said in an interview. “If you think about it, a child is in school for nine months, in a controlled environment where meals are available, and all of a sudden school goes out, and so many are not eating the way they should be.”

Some observers expressed concern about the expansion, given the uneven implementation of P-EBT over the past year. Katie Wilson, the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, said P-EBT was “set up very quickly because of the crisis,” and states were given too much leeway in managing it. As a result, there were significant differences among states in terms of when and how benefits were disbursed. In some states, for instance, families are still waiting on benefits cards. Some state governments, she noted, relied on already-strained school nutrition programs to assist with P-EBT rollouts — requiring them to create lists of eligible students, for example, and pulling resources from grab-and-go operations and other school meal efforts during the pandemic. “We need to think this through and make sure it’s working like we want it to work,” she said.

But the summer months should present fewer logistical challenges. Because P-EBT is designed to compensate for missed school meals, the shifting between in-person classes and online learning has made it hard for states to figure out proper benefit amounts. That won’t be a problem during the summer. “In the summer, states will be able to provide to all kids,” explained FitzSimons. “So the process should be a little bit easier.”