Obama Proposes Cash Benefits to Close the Summer Hunger Gap for Students

Instead of preparing subsidized meals, the White House wants to provide EBT cards to ease the strain on budgets when school’s out.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jan 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Making sure everyone gets enough to eat is a simple enough goal. Making it happen on a national scale, on the other hand, is both politically fraught and logistically difficult. There are regular attempts to cut the budget for SNAP, the largest federal nutrition assistance program, despite its track record of reducing hospital visits for low blood pressure and disciplinary infractions in school and raising 4.7 million recipients out of poverty.

While the far smaller summer lunch program—meant to feed children who might otherwise experience hunger over school breaks—is much less controversial, it has much lower participation rates than the school lunch program. Only 3.8 million children take part in summer lunch programs, compared with 22 million during the school year, NPR reported.

The government knows that such programs only work if people are using them—which is why the president wants to make the summer food aid assistance more like SNAP.

On Wednesday, President Obama announced that his 2017 budget will include a $12 billion investment over 10 years to overhaul the summer lunch program. The majority of this funding would pay for EBT cards given to struggling, low-income parents so they can buy extra groceries during the summer. Since 2011, the USDA has been piloting this program, and it has found it can “significantly reduce food insecurity and improve nutrition,” according to a USDA fact sheet. Overall, it cut rates of “very low food security”—the lowest level possible—by a full third.

For parents who have trouble giving their families enough to eat, the school year represents five free or reduced-price meals for each child every week. A 2015 study from Share Our Strength reported, “59 percent of educators say ‘a lot or most’ children in their school rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition.” Parents with SNAP benefits or other assistance often can’t stretch funds to the end of the month, leaving their families hungrier in the weeks leading up to the next disbursement. Now imagine what the meal-planning math looks like when you take those school lunches away.

With such a low percentage of eligible students taking advantage of summer lunch programs, that’s essentially what’s been happening. There are a few issues that have been keeping children from eating these lunches. If a school is having budget problems, summer lunch programs can sometimes be cut. In rural areas where children rely on transportation to make the long trek to and from school, the lack of school buses in the summer can make it impossible to take advantage of any lunch program that requires them to travel.

These issues could all be solved if the summer EBT program goes through—which, as a budget proposal from a lame-duck president, is probably a long shot. But the idea has merit and, possibly, legs: no more need for children to eat lunch at a certain time and place (and require schools or other organizations to have the funds to host it); no worries about whether a summer lunch program nearby will have enough funding or the right transportation.

While the first goal of the revamped summer lunch program is to keep kids already getting free meals during the school year fed in the summer, the Obama administration also wants to make sure everyone who qualifies is both aware of it and enrolls. To that end, the USDA also on Wednesday announced an initiative that will allow states to use Medicaid data to automatically allow students to enroll in subsidized lunch programs.

But until direct summer food aid becomes widespread, hungry students will continue being served by nonprofit programs aimed at keeping all kids healthy and fed. For example, since 1994, the Arkansas Rice Depot has been sending eligible public schoolchildren home on the weekends with backpacks full of food, acknowledging that summer isn’t the only time hungry children may need a little extra.