A year ago this month, COVID-19 shuttered schools across the country and sparked not only an education crisis but a hunger crisis. Normally, more than half of all public school students–nearly 22 million children–rely on free or reduced-price school meals to meet their daily nutritional needs. For these children, school closures have meant missed meals and, too often, empty stomachs.
That’s why Congress created the new Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program in March 2020 to give families money to replace the free or reduced-price meals their children would have otherwise received at school. Despite initial implementation and rollout challenges, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands operated a P-EBT program for children during the 2019-2020 school year. The program proved successful, reaching as many as 12.9 million children and helping up to 3.9 million children avoid hunger last spring and summer.
This school year has posed new and greater challenges, however. Schools are now serving children through a variety of learning models, including in-person, out of school, or hybrid. Grocery costs are becoming increasingly out of reach, spiking roughly 4 percent since the start of the pandemic. And child hunger and poverty are rising well above pre-pandemic levels, with 1 in 7 households with children reporting they did not get enough to eat at the start of March 2021.
To better address these challenges and meet the needs of children and families, Congress and the Biden Administration have made a number of improvements to P-EBT over the past year since the program was created. So, how has P-EBT changed and what do these changes mean for children and families this school year and beyond?
- Children under six are now eligible: In December, Congress expanded P-EBT to cover children under six who can no longer access affordable meals through their child care providers who are often shut down or operating at half capacity. To qualify for P-EBT, young children must be enrolled in SNAP and a child care facility that is either closed, operating at reduced capacity, or located near a school that is fully or partially closed. Benefits for these children are being issued retroactively back to October 1, 2020.
- Children in hybrid settings are still eligible for some benefits: Given a growing number of schools and child care centers are operating on a hybrid basis, Congress and the USDA have also loosened restrictions under P-EBT to allow children receiving a mix of in-person and virtual instruction to qualify for partial benefits. Until they return to school or child care full-time, children in hybrid settings can receive P-EBT benefits on days they attend virtually and cannot access meals in-person. To make it easier for states to comply, the USDA issued new guidance in January and afforded states an option to offer standard, average benefits for all hybrid students–regardless of their unique or precise schedules. So far, a majority of states have selected this option.
- Children will receive higher benefits: Shortly after taking office in January, President Biden used his executive authority to boost P-EBT benefits by 15 percent for qualifying families. P-EBT benefits now total $6.82 per day, roughly the value of two free meals and a snack. On average, a family with three children can expect an additional $50 of nutrition assistance each month. This benefit boost is being applied retroactively to the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
- Benefits are being issued retroactively: Facing new implementation challenges, many states could not begin issuing P-EBT benefits at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Some states have yet to issue any P-EBT benefits for the current school year. Accordingly, all states are required to issue benefits retroactively and ensure eligible families receive back payments they are owed to make up for the past six months of missed meals.
- Benefits are available through the summer and the end of the public health emergency: Under the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress expanded P-EBT to cover meals during the summer in addition to the school year and finally extended the program through the end of the public health emergency. Now, there is certainty that P-EBT benefits will be available this summer and for as long as the COVID-19 public health emergency remains in effect.
These improvements and flexibilities will expand P-EBT’s reach and keep more children fed and healthy until schools can fully and safely reopen. But we cannot stop here. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of school meals–and exposed the need to ensure every child can access them at all times, at no cost. Looking ahead, we must build on the success of P-EBT and authorize a permanent out-of-school EBT program to ensure children never go hungry when school is closed–not only during times of crisis, but also traditional school years. And we must expand our school lunch and breakfast programs to provide universal free school meals for all children, even after the COVID-19 crisis ends. It should not have taken a global pandemic for our nation to implement these common-sense solutions to keep children fed–and we cannot allow these critical steps forward to be undone. No child should be denied the healthy food they need to succeed inside and outside the classroom.