The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new effort Monday to feed millions of children this summer, when free school meals traditionally reach just a small minority of the kids who rely on them the rest of the year. The move expands what's known as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, program into the summer months, and USDA estimates it will reach more than 30 million children.
"If children and children's learning and children's health is a priority for us in this country, then we need to fund our priorities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a Monday interview with NPR's All Things Considered. "I think it's an important day."
P-EBT takes the value of the meals kids aren't getting at school, about $6.82 per child per weekday, according to USDA, and puts it onto a debit card that families can use at the grocery store. Households already enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (once known as food stamps) can have the value placed directly onto their SNAP debit card.
Children are eligible for the new P-EBT summer expansion if they are eligible to receive free or low-cost meals during the school year. Children younger than 6 can also qualify if they live in a household that currently receives SNAP benefits. According to USDA, eligible families can expect to receive roughly $375 per child to help them through this summer.
"Families are still in crisis as a result of the pandemic and providing Pandemic EBT benefits this summer will help reduce childhood hunger and support good nutrition," said Crystal FitzSimons at the Food Research & Action Center, or FRAC.
P-EBT began in March 2020 as an emergency move to reach children whose schools had closed in response to the pandemic; it was extended as part of the American Rescue Plan, the massive COVID-19 relief package that President Biden signed this past March.
The summer months have traditionally been hard on children who depend on free or low-cost school meals. According to FRAC, in July 2019, just 1 in 7 children who ate at little or no cost during the school year was getting a subsidized school lunch at the height of summer.
Currently, at least 37 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have been approved by USDA to provide P-EBT since the program's inception. On Monday, Secretary Tom Vilsack told All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly that he's been on the phone with governors working to expand adoption.
"When I took this job, I think only 12 states were currently enrolled ... and we're continuing to get states in every day," Vilsack said. As for why some states hadn't yet signed on, he said, "I think the guidance that we were providing to states was a little bit murky ... There's no confusion about the simple plan here for the summer. Mom and Dad get a card. They are able to go to the grocery store. They now have more resources to be able to feed their family."
Monday's announcement is just the latest move by USDA to fight child hunger. The agency recently issued waivers that will allow school districts to offer free school meals to all children in the 2021-2022 school year. Schools will also be allowed to pack meals in bulk and deliver them to students still learning at home. The Biden administration also recently pushed a $1.1 billion monthly increase in SNAP benefits through September 2021.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, which has offered regular snapshots of families' wellbeing during the pandemic, food insecurity in the U.S. has been declining in recent months. As of the period from March 17-29, nearly 23% of households with children reported experiencing some food insecurity, down from a pandemic high of 31.4% in December 2020.
"Food insecurity rates are finally starting to come down," said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. A host of federal programs to fight hunger and put money in the pockets of low-income Americans are "putting substantial downward pressure on food insecurity rates. It's a whole new world," Bauer said.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Nearly 1 in 4 kids in this country experiences hunger on a pretty regular basis. And during the pandemic, as many as 12 million children have not always had enough to eat. Last year, the Department of Agriculture introduced a universal free school lunch program to try to combat that increased food insecurity. And today the department is announcing an expanded benefit, one aimed at making sure kids have enough to eat through the summer. Well, here to tell us more is secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Secretary, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
TOM VILSACK: It is great to be back and certainly great on a day that, for 30 million American children, is a very meaningful day.
KELLY: Well, walk us briefly, if you would. Give me the two, three sentence version of what this program will do that wasn't already being done through the free lunch program.
VILSACK: Well, the reality is a free lunch and reduced lunch program works during the school year, but there is no counterpart during the summer. And what we're creating is the opportunity for a continuum of nutritional assistance through the summer by providing parents of children who are currently free and reduced lunch students at school and parents who have children under the age of 6 that are currently receiving - their family's receiving SNAP benefits the opportunity to receive additional financial help during the summer to be able to afford more nutrition and better nutrition for their children.
KELLY: And basically, this is a transfer of money because kids are - as you note, during the summer, they're not going to be going to school. During the pandemic, it wasn't a guarantee that they would be anyway. This would add up to something like $375 for the summer. It would be about $6.82 a day per child every weekday. Is that right?
VILSACK: That's correct, so it's roughly the reimbursement that schools receive. Now parents will receive that benefit for the summer to be able to meet the nutritional needs of their children.
KELLY: Let's talk about how you're going to pay for this. Child hunger in the States, as we mentioned, was impacted certainly by the pandemic but sadly is not exclusive to the pandemic. This extra aid is going to be paid for through the coronavirus relief package. Are there enough resources to keep it up when that money runs out?
VILSACK: Well, the way it's structured, it isn't going to run out of money. That's not the issue. The issue is making sure that every child who qualifies for the program participates. That's working with the states and school districts to make sure we've identified properly those students who are free and reduced lunch in schools and those families that are currently in SNAP that have children under the age of 6 and encouraging states and school districts to get the information to the states so that they can send the cards out as quickly as possible.
KELLY: So do you have any concern that you're creating a benefit that you would not be able to sustain once that coronavirus money is gone?
VILSACK: Well, obviously, Congress and the president have to make decisions about future budgets. But I think what we want to be able to do this year is to show the significant importance of this to families and to explain and understand that if children and children's learning and children's health is a priority for us in this country, then we need to fund our priorities. We need to recognize the importance of investing in their future, investing in their nutrition, investing in their health and in their education.
VILSACK: And I think, you know, from what we have seen from the pilots, we know these programs reduce hunger. We know that they impact positively poverty rates. Those are two very good reasons for looking at this program. I can give you several others. I think children will learn better because they'll be better nourished during the summer, better prepared to start school next school year. I think it is also a health issue, potentially less obesity, and that will result in fewer chronic diseases going into adulthood, less cost associated. I mean, there are multiple reasons why policymakers should really think about the - prioritizing programs like this as they make future decisions.
KELLY: What are you hearing back from kids?
VILSACK: Well, kids (laughter) - what kid doesn't like to get fed?
VILSACK: And especially kids during the summer, you know - I mean, they also like the convenience of this because in the past, if they were to get a summer meal, they had to go someplace. They had to disrupt their day. And maybe some of their friends didn't go, and some friends did go, so they had to disrupt the whole summer vacation mode here. This basically provides parents the capacity to have the food at home. They can enjoy their summer. There will still be summer feeding programs, and it's important for those programs to continue. But at the end of the day, this is really providing an opportunity that has not existed before. It's a massive opportunity here for us to make a statement about child health, about child nutrition. And I think it's an important day.
KELLY: Tom Vilsack - he is U.S. secretary of Agriculture.
Secretary, thanks for your time.
VILSACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.