The sprawling government funding package Congress unveiled early Tuesday includes critical nutrition provisions that anti-hunger advocates say would ensure millions of children have access to healthy food when school is out for the summer.
If it is signed into law, the omnibus bill would address the summer food gap low-income families face in two ways.
It would permit “grab-and-go” free summer meals to be distributed in rural communities as part of the nationwide Summer Food Service Program, expanding access for more children in need. The federally funded, state-administered program feeds children in low-income areas of the country, and its meal distribution locations normally require participants to travel to them to eat meals on-site at set times, as opposed to allowing meals to be delivered or taken to go.
The bill would also establish a permanent Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, program, which would provide $40 in supplementary grocery benefits per child for each summer month for families that rely on free or reduced-price school meals. The Summer EBT program would start in 2024.
Similar measures were instituted temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic, when advocates had feared the rate of childhood hunger would skyrocket; they credited the temporary nutrition measures, among others, with staving off food insecurity.
Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign at Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working to end hunger and poverty, applauded the bill. She said summer has been “a big, gaping hole” for children who depend on school lunches during the rest of the year, adding that 6 out of every 7 children who participate in free and reduced-price meals were unable to access the summer meal program before the pandemic.
“I don’t often use this word, but I would say ‘ecstatic’ is how I’m feeling right now. Cautiously ecstatic,” she said Tuesday, hours after the omnibus bill had been released with just days remaining for it to be approved to avert a government shutdown.
During the pandemic, federal waivers loosened mealtime requirements for the Summer Food Service Program across the country and gave parents the ability to pick up meals without their children present. Summer meal program operators could bundle food to go, enabling them to send multiple days’ worth of food home with families so they did not have to return every day during the limited hours meals were served.
Not all meal program operators used the to-go option, officially referred to as noncongregate meals. An exclusive NBC News analysis found that this summer Missouri was the only state that did not allow a grab-and-go option for its Summer Food Service Program operators; the number of meals Missouri kids received dropped dramatically as a result, with community operators across the state saying they distributed up to 97% fewer than in the previous summer at some sites.
Many families across the country will most likely still be unable to access summer meals even with the new grab-and-go option for rural areas, and a permanent Summer EBT program will reduce the burden they face, said Eric Mitchell, the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, a coalition of over 100 groups working to address the root causes of hunger.
Congress piloted a Summer EBT program in a handful of states over a decade ago; it provided supplemental grocery benefits for low-income families, which was found to reduce summer food insecurity and give children more access to healthy options like fruits and vegetables when school was closed. That was a model for the Pandemic EBT program, or P-EBT, which was created to supplement families during pandemic-related school closures.
Access to food is “an issue of equity,” Mitchell said. “It can’t be a one-size-fits-all. And so having options like Summer EBT, having options like grab-and-go, other noncongregate options, is the way to be able to do that.”
The summer nutrition program expansions in the bill were championed by Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and John Boozman, R-Ark., chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, respectively. There was no expansion of the child tax credit in the omnibus bill, which advocates have also pushed for to reduce poverty.
"We know too often children who are able to get healthy meals in school go hungry during the summer. This investment is a critical step to ending childhood hunger," Stabenow said by email, adding that she was committed to more comprehensive ways to assist families, including protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. "Our work is far from over," she said.
Davis said the nutrition provisions were “long overdue” in the fight against childhood hunger.
"As soon as the president signs that bill, I am going to be screaming and jumping up and down with joy," she said. "It is such a big win for kids."