Food and Nutrition

The USDA’s Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program Is Expanding to Feed Millions Of Children This Summer

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Photo: Stocksy/Nabi Tang

This summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, is expanding its Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, otherwise known as P-EBT. This initiative—and its extension—are geared towards feeding the millions of children who rely on free school meals throughout the rest of the year. 

What is P-EBT, exactly?

For tens of millions of children across the country, the public school system is one of the most reliable sources of food available. In fact, a Congressional Research Service report estimated that in 2019, more than 30 million children relied on a free or reduced-price lunch service. However, as the pandemic shut down schools and sent children into remote learning environments, their access to food benefits otherwise provided by free and reduced-cost lunch programs suddenly disappeared. 

As a result, P-EBT was enacted as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 in March of last year. The program gave children who would normally qualify for free or reduced lunch at school the value of their meals on an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. This EBT card functions much like a debit card, and can be used to purchase food at grocery stores or on Amazon. In effect, rather than providing children with food at school, the USDA found a way to provide families with some help in acquiring this food. 

The program is meant to cover breakfast, lunch, and a snack for eligible kids. For the 2020 to 2021 school year, it was valued at $122.76 per month for children in fully virtual classes, and $73.66 per month for children in a hybrid system (i.e. a system that involves both online and in-person learning). 

What does the P-EBT extension do?

Even during a normal school year, the summer months present a significant challenge for the food insecure population of children. The Food Research and Action Center estimates that just one in seven kids who normally receive subsidized school lunches are able to access the same benefits when classes are not in session. 

Now, the USDA is extending P-EBT to bridge this gap presented by the summer months. The expanded P-EBT program will cover the price of a meal that a child would receive at school, which is around $6.82. As with the original program, this balance is placed on a debit card for families to use to purchase food. For families who are currently enrolled part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), this meal value can also be placed on their SNAP debit card. The USDA anticipates the value of the program to be $375 per child throughout the course of the summer. 

"Summer has always been a hard time for children at risk of hunger,” says Deputy Under Secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Stacy Dean. “The COVID-19 public health crisis adds another layer of uncertainty to this already difficult time; as many as 12 million children haven’t always had enough to eat throughout this pandemic. Food insecurity during COVID-19 is even worse among African American and Latino communities, who are three times as likely—and indigenous communities, who are twice as likely—to report that their households don’t get enough to eat." As such, the P-EBT expansion comes at a particularly critical time. The USDA estimates that their extension will mean that more than 30 million children nationwide will receive nearly $13 billion in P-EBT benefits this summer.

This latest update to the program is actually one in a series of extensions. In January, the USDA increased the P-EBT by around 15 percent to help provide more assistance for low-income families. The agency has also looked toward ways to increase the benefits from SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) to all eligible participants, but in particular the lowest-income households who have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Feeding America projects that one in eight Americans, including 13 million children (or one in six children) may experience food insecurity in 2021. Conversely, in 2019, about one in nine people and one in seven children were food insecure, demonstrating the effect of the pandemic on food scarcity in the country. 

Who is eligible?

Children over the age of six are eligible for the program if they receive free or reduced-price lunches at school; children under the age of six are eligible if their family is already enrolled in SNAP. 

While separate applications for P-EBT are not available, states, districts, and territories participating in P-EBT use the existing Free and Reduced-Price School Meals (FARM) applications to determine whether or not a child is eligible to receive these benefits. 

Thus far, 45 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have been approved to operate a P-EBT program. 

How long will these benefits last?

P-EBT will continue its operations throughout the entirety of the pandemic as a result of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, which means that children and their families will have access to the expanded program for the entirety of the summer, and hopefully longer. 

“States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall,” says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in the USDA's public announcement. “USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools." 

There is still plenty of work to be done. As the country attempts to shift toward a new normal, initiatives like P-EBT will be key in ensuring that children have enough food to eat and are prepared to return to classrooms in the fall. 

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