High unemployment rates, disparate health outcomes, and uncertainty regarding what school will be like in the fall, Americans continue to face public health and economic consequences as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the nation waits for Congress to vote on the next stimulus package, legislation that will help Americans continue to access food is a priority for many.
Three of the most significant efforts the federal government has undertaken to address food insecurity amid the pandemic’s economic disruption to date include: the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, food stamp emergency allotments, and taking food stamp benefits online.
In Florida, approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to launch a pilot project that allows families to purchase groceries online with their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card took effect in April. The following month, Governor Ron DeSantis announced federal approval for the implementation of Florida’s Pandemic EBT Program (P-EBT), a program that provides one-time food benefits to children who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) but whose schools are closed due to the pandemic.
Although the State and Federal Government have followed through with a number of policy initiatives, as the school year begins, organizations and experts are calling for policy fixes that would help feed children and families through the crisis and beyond.
According to Areeba Haider, a research assistant for the Poverty to Prosperity Program, to date, Congress has left more than 12 million individuals—including nearly 5 million children—out of enacted coronavirus relief legislation. She notes that although the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the first coronavirus relief package passed and enacted by Congress months ago, included an important investment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aimed at stemming predicted increases in food insecurity, did boost benefits for some SNAP recipients, those who were already the poorest prior to the COVID-19 emergency and already receiving the maximum SNAP benefit did not and have not received any additional food assistance.
In an effort to urge Congress to take action, a coalition of nearly 2,500 organizations called for a 15 percent increase in the maximum monthly SNAP benefit in June. This would mean that all SNAP recipients, including those already receiving the maximum benefit, would see an increase in assistance levels.
On August 4th, a new report was released by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) that ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia on participation in the Summer Nutrition Programs. The Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report, which measures participation in Summer Nutrition Programs by comparing the number of children receiving summer meals to the number of low-income children receiving school lunch during the regular school year.
The study found that increased investments in Summer Nutrition Programs, combined with the implementation of best practices, such as intensive outreach, site recruitment, and reducing barriers to participation, would help eliminate the nutrition and summer learning opportunity gaps for the millions of children facing food insecurity at unprecedented levels.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued nationwide summer waivers to ensure access to summer meals during the pandemic, such as waiving the 50 percent eligibility requirement. These waivers must continue through the upcoming school to allow communities to serve meals to low-income children during the pandemic. Congress should consider making some of the changes permanent to ensure access during normal summers, said FRAC President Luis Guardia.
House Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03) went a step further by introducing legislation on July 30th to make all students eligible for free school meals (breakfast and lunch) during the 2020-2021 school year through the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), regardless of their geography or socioeconomic status.
The Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act would allow all children to access breakfast, lunch, and after school snack programs either in school or through “grab and go” and delivery options. The proposal would also eliminate paperwork for families and school officials, who would not have to fill out and process applications during a time of crisis.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated our nation’s child hunger crisis, created record high unemployment, and caused prolonged economic hardship—leaving many families struggling to cover basic essentials,” said Chairman Scott. “The Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act would help address the child hunger crisis, make it easier for schools to operate school meal programs, and provide financial relief to school meal programs that have suffered heavy losses during the pandemic. This legislation will ensure that all children will have access to nutrition during this public health emergency.”
At a time when many Americans find themselves struggling to put food on the table, Americans are eagerly looking to Congress to offer some relief.