By Tami Luhby, CNN
(CNN) — Nearly 21 million low-income kids should have an easier time affording food this summer, thanks to a new federal program that aims to reduce child hunger when school is not in session.
The Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program, known as Summer EBT, will provide families with $120 per eligible child over the summer to buy food at grocery stores, farmers markets or other authorized retailers. Children who qualify for the free or reduced-price school meals program are eligible for the initiative, which began as a pilot project in 2011.
“Summer EBT is a proven game changer in the fight against child hunger,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told CNN. “We think that we’re going to be able to make some progress in closing the summer hunger gap as a result.”
In total, nearly $2.5 billion in grocery benefits is expected to be distributed.
Some 35 states, all five US territories and four tribes have told the US Department of Agriculture that they will participate in Summer EBT this year, covering about 70% of the children eligible for the program. Additional states are expected to sign up for next summer.
But several states, including Nebraska and Iowa, have said they would not join, labeling the program as an outdated Covid-19 pandemic relief measure.
Addressing hunger over the summer
Many low-income children suffer from increased hunger when they lose access to free and reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches over the summer.
Though the USDA runs summer food programs, only about 1 in 6 eligible children receive the meals, in part because of the strict rules governing their distribution. Being well fed over the summer also minimizes the learning loss many children experience when class is out.
The USDA launched the Summer EBT pilot after Congress authorized it to test ways to reduce food insecurity during summer vacation. By 2018, around 300,000 children in eight states were being served, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the Food Research & Action Center.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the US in the spring of 2020, the USDA set up the Pandemic EBT program, which provided eligible families with funds to purchase food to replace the meals their children would have eaten in school. It also distributed benefits over the summer in participating states for three years before expiring nationwide at the end of last summer.
Food insecurity among families with children rose significantly in 2022 after falling markedly the year before, when several pandemic relief programs were in effect, according to the USDA’s most recent tally. Children were food insecure at times in 3.3 million households with kids during 2022, an increase of 1 million families from the prior year.
Congress established the permanent Summer EBT as part of the fiscal year 2023 federal government funding package. Those who receive the funds can also take part in the USDA’s summer meals programs.
Evaluations of the Summer EBT pilot program showed that it reduced the number of children with very low food insecurity and supported the purchases of more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, according to the USDA.
“One of the easiest ways to support kids having access to food is to provide the family grocery benefits to purchase additional food,” FitzSimons said.
Setting up the system, however, requires some work and funding on the part of states, which are each submitting their own implementation plans to USDA. They have to identify the children who are eligible and, typically, send families a debit-type card preloaded with the benefit. In some states, those who receive food stamps will have the Summer EBT funds added to their existing cards.
Also, states must foot the bill for half of the administrative expenses – unlike in the Pandemic EBT program, where the federal government paid 100% of those costs.
States have mixed views
Some states have eagerly embraced the new program.
“This new federal funding will be a critical lifeline for families struggling to make ends meet,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said in a statement. She expects about 2 million New York kids will receive more than $200 million for summer meals.
Likewise, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, called the Summer EBT program “an important new tool to give Arkansas children the food and nutrition they need.”
Roughly 315,000 children in Arkansas would be eligible to receive about $37.8 million in Summer EBT benefits, according to estimates by the Food Research & Action Center.
But some Republican governors, including Jim Pillen of Nebraska and Kim Reynolds of Iowa, have said they will not participate.
“COVID-19 is over and Nebraska taxpayers expect that pandemic-era government relief programs will end too,” Pillen said in a statement, noting that children can still access the USDA’s summer meals programs. “Children who are fed on-site by trained program providers are ensured healthy meals and snacks, as well as access to educational and enrichment activities.”
About 175,000 Nebraska kids would be eligible to receive about $21 million in Summer EBT benefits this year, according to the Food Research & Action Center. In Iowa, about 240,000 children would qualify for about $28.8 million in assistance.
Reynolds criticized the Summer EBT program for having few restrictions on food purchases, saying it did not have a strong nutrition focus. Also, it would cost the state about $2.2 million to administer.
“Federal COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long-term solutions for the issues impacting children and families,” Reynolds said in a statement. “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”
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