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Pandemic food benefit expands for qualifying children through summer

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A little boy picks up his school lunch.

For many kids, school is the main way to get any lunch at all. Karen Ducey/Getty Images

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The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT program, was started by the federal government at the beginning of the pandemic to get food to children who aren’t getting their meals at school anymore. But there was a gap in these types of meals even before the pandemic: summer. 

“When that last school bell rings, all of that infrastructure goes away,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. Last summer, because of the pandemic, to-go free and reduced-price meals increased 160%, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the P-EBT program.

But picking up meals can be tough for parents who may not have the time or a car.

“Even in the communities that do the best job of this, those summer meals are only reaching a fraction of the kids who normally get fed during the school year,” said Judi Bartfeld, a food security research and policy specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To fill in the gaps, states are starting to open up applications for a pandemic relief program that allows families who qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches to collect additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.

The expansion will get more food into hungry mouths, said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution who focuses on social and safety-net policies. Before P-EBT started, not all families who qualified for free or reduced lunch qualified for SNAP.

“Pandemic EBT is meant to catch people who are falling into the gaps. And to catch people who are not in school,” Bauer said.

Researchers think this temporary expansion could bring permanent changes to the SNAP program. In fact, the USDA’s been piloting a similar EBT program in a handful of states for almost a decade.

“I think when you have basically kind of a nationwide experiment showing that something new and different like this works and can be effective, it can create momentum for longer-term change, certainly,” Bartfeld said.

So far, 31 states have been approved to expand Pandemic EBT.

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