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USDA Moves To Feed Millions Of Children Over The Summer

Students carry sack lunches at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash. On Monday, USDA unveiled a new program that would feed millions of children over the summer, when many schools are closed.
Students carry sack lunches at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash. On Monday, USDA unveiled a new program that would feed millions of children over the summer, when many schools are closed.

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 waiversthat 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.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.