‘No excuse for inaction’: Experts urge Congress to extend program providing free school replacement meals for kids

Over one in 10 parents say their children sometimes, or often, didn't get enough to eat in August. And those levels could continue — or even get worse — with a nationwide federal meal program set to expire at the end of the month.

About 14% of adults living with children reported that the kids in their household sometimes, or often, didn't have enough to eat because the family couldn't afford it, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey fielded between August 19 and 31, 2020 by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

To help families struggling amid school closures brought about by the coronavirus pandemic in spring, Congress authorized a new program called the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), which provides families with a voucher to purchase groceries to replace the breakfasts and lunches their children were missing with schools closed. 

Every state and two territories adopted the new program in the spring, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. While the programs varied by state, P-EBT provided families with school-aged children between $250 and $450 per child during the spring to replace missed school meals. Most states had an application process families were required to complete, but some automatically enrolled children based on statewide lists of children already receiving free lunches. Households that qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, typically qualify for free school lunches. 

But that the program will no longer be authorized to operate as of September 30 unless Congress votes to pass legislation extending it. 

"Millions of children are simply not getting enough to eat and urgently need Congress to provide relief," says Stacy Dean, CBPP's vice president for food assistance policy. We have an obligation to our nation's children. We have the resources, and we know how to solve this problem. There is no excuse for inaction."

Widespread food insecurity may have long-term consequences 

"What I see every single day from the pandemic is really just amazingly increased numbers of severely underweight children coming to our clinic, and parents really panicked about how they're going to find enough food," says Dr. Megan Sandel, co-director of the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston Medical Center. Sandel says the clinic, which provides services to children that meet malnutrition guidelines set out by the World Health Organization, is seeing a 40% increase in its caseload. 

Currently, over two-thirds of the families the clinic sees are reporting food insecurity. "It's not unusual for families to report to me that sometimes at the end of the month they may have to stretch a dollar or try to figure out new ways to feed their kids," Sandel says. "But what families are now reporting to me is that…sometimes [by the] the second or even third week of the month, they've run out of their food budget. They don't have enough food."

In fact, Sandel says parents are telling her that they are sometimes going back into the kitchen during meal times so their children don't notice they aren't eating themselves. "Parents will actually not eat as a way to free up enough food to feed their children," Sandel says. "I see the fear in the parents' eyes, and I see how kids are really struggling not to have access to that proper nutrition."

Children's struggle with hunger may have long-term consequences, Sandel says. If children are food insecure at age 1, 2 or 3, Sandel says research is showing that those same kids are having a more difficult time showing up to learn in kindergarten. 

"This pandemic is really going to affect a generation of kids over the next two years in terms of whether or not they're going to be able to stay on track and learn to read, to learn all the things that are really critical to our future workforce," Sandel says. 

'A real success story'

During the spring months, Brookings Institute estimates that the P-EBT program lifted between 2.7 million and 3.9 million children out of hunger. More broadly, the program reduced food hardship faced by the lowest-income children by 30% in the week following distribution of funds, Brookings researchers found. 

But beyond just replacing the meals children do not have access to if they're enrolled for remote learning, the P-EBT program has less obvious positive impacts, says Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Wisconsin-based Hunger Task Force. The assistance comes directly to families, for example, rather than forcing them to search out food pantries and community soup kitchens for meals and potentially increasing their risk of exposure to Covid-19.

The program also reduces hardship for parents who may not have the time or the transportation to pick up supplies and bagged lunches given out through Grab and Go programs. Families can also eat the foods that are familiar to them, Tussler says. 

Although the P-EBT program runs through the end of this month, only nine states have been approved to distribute benefits during August and September, Dean says, adding that several states have applied for the fall, but their approval is still pending.

Of course, with some schools operating on a blended schedule of in-person instruction and remote learning, how benefits are handled might become more complicated. About 60% of students will attend school virtually this fall, while 18% will split their time between remote learning and in-person attendance. Just 19% of children nationwide will be attending in person, according to a report out earlier this month from Burbio, which aggregated data from 80,000 K-12 school calendars across all 50 states. But Dean says that if Congress votes to extend the P-EBT program, the challenges presented by blended school programs are a "sortable problem."

"I would say it's been a real success story. I have families that have said: Thank goodness for this; If I didn't have this, I wouldn't have been able to keep enough food in the house," Sandel says. "And I really think taking that away, which is what functionally the federal government is doing here right now, is going to have really catastrophic effects."

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