Congress is on the verge of helping kids in poverty to eat better over the summer months when school lunches may not be an option for them.
Tucked into the massive $1.7 trillion spending bill that lawmakers are expected to approve by the end of the week is language providing for an electronic benefit transfer program that would give families who qualify for school lunches an extra monthly grocery credit of $40 per child over the summer.
The legislation would also make it easier for some rural children to get food by allowing families to pick up meals to take home and eat later, rather than requiring the kids to eat in a centralized setting like a cafeteria during set hours.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) — the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees food programs — said the changes would benefit as many as 29 million children and mark the first new permanent boost in such programs in 10 years.
“We know too often children who are able to get healthy meals in school go hungry during the summer,” she said in a statement. “This investment is a critical step to ending childhood hunger.”
It marks a turnaround, too, from earlier this year, when summer meal programs were on the verge of seeing cutbacks. A bipartisan compromise in June kept that from happening but also trimmed the school-year lunch program to pay for it.
Meanwhile, several states and governors have recently stepped up efforts to expand school lunch programs across the board.
Colorado voters in November approved free school lunches for all students, regardless of income. California’s Universal Meals Program requires schools to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students who request them, beginning in the current school year. And Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said he wants to use a state budget surplus to reinstate a temporary free breakfast and lunch program there.
The benefits for school districts often include better classroom performance and less paperwork, as they no longer have to figure out which students meet family income eligibility requirements. They also can avoid having to dun families for school lunch debt over reduced-price meals.
Lisa Davis, a senior vice president with anti-hunger group No Kid Hungry, said in a statement that 6 out of 7 students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals don’t have access to summer meal programs.
“We know these investments will work,” she said.
“When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to skyrocket childhood hunger rates, Congress acted swiftly to implement temporary versions of these policies that not only forestalled the worst impacts of the crisis, but helped to dramatically reduce the number of kids living with hunger.”
However, as with the June deal, there are offsetting reductions elsewhere to keep costs down. The spending bill would cut back on early pandemic programs that boosted the monthly benefit amount for federal food assistance recipients and that loaded extra benefits onto families’ EBT cards to replace lost meals amid school closures.
“We know these investments will work.”
“While we are disappointed to see these reductions, we recognize that diverting these temporary funds to create permanent policies to close the summer meal gap is a trade-off worth taking,” said Davis.
Another group, the Food Research & Action Center, said the change in food assistance requirements could leave some recipients at risk of a “hunger cliff” as soon as March, while older adults with benefits could see them fall from $281 a month to only $23.
“Much-needed investments in child nutrition should not be made by reducing SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits or other offsets that would hurt families with low incomes,” said FRAC President Luis Guardia in a statement.