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Pandemic food program covers students, even on summer break

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A 5-year-old picks up a free school lunch at Olympic Hills Elementary School on March 18, 2020, in Seattle, Washington.

Karen Ducey/Getty Images

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Lots of kids wait all year for the last day of school. But for the millions of families who depend on free and reduced-price meals, “when that last school bell rings, all of the infrastructure that makes school meals such a success goes away,” said Lisa Davis with No Kid Hungry. She said many schools continue federal meal programs through the summer. But rules often require children to eat onsite, even when buses aren’t running. It means 6 out of 7 kids aren’t able to access these meals during break.

That changed last summer during the pandemic, when the USDA relaxed guidelines. “And so schools and community organizations could deliver meals to kids,” Davis said. “Families could pick up several days’ worth of meals so that they only had to make the trip once a week.”

The result? The number of summer meals served last July increased by 160%. And this summer, families will get food assistance for a longer period of time. The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, which allows families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to collect additional SNAP benefits throughout remote and hybrid learning, is being extended during the summer.

“Just frankly it’s a straightforward solution to make sure that kids have enough to eat,” said Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University who studies child poverty. She said not only will these benefits get more kids fed, it gives families the independence to shop sales and eat what they like. You know how picky kids can be. 

Plus, keeping the program running means the infrastructure will be ready for any emergency that closes school, “like the pandemic or a natural disaster or wildfires,” said Crystal FitzSimons at the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center.

The Biden administration has expressed interest in making Summer EBT permanent, and advocates are hopeful. Previous expansions of food aid for children have received bipartisan support. 

For now, the Pandemic EBT program will continue through summer 2022.

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