Congress redirects emergency SNAP benefits to fund summer meals for school kids

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Klaus Vedfelt
Source: Getty/Klaus Vedfelt

Related tags school meals Food for kids SNAP

Anti-hunger advocates are lauding Congress for setting aside $40m in the 2023 omnibus spending bill to improve children’s access to healthy food in summer when many schools and their cafeterias are closed, placing young people who rely on free and reduced-price school meals at greater risk of hunger.

But they also lament that funding for the new provisions comes at the expense of some temporary pandemic-era nutrition programs – a trade-off some say is short-sighted and could cause additional hardship in the coming months as inflation continues to drive up grocery prices. Others argue the trade-off, while undesirable, is worth it.

Either way, the amount of money available from the government to offset grocery prices could shift between different demographic groups in the coming year – which could impact the types of products that retailers sell and ultimately stock.

‘The most extensive permanent policy changes to end child summer hunger’

Included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, signed late last week by President Joe Biden, are two provisions that Feeding America characterizes as a “historic win,”​ and which it argues represents “the most extensive permanent policy changes to end child summer hunger in a generation.”

The first is the creation of a nationwide Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer grocery card program that will give families with children who qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals an extra $40 per month, per child, for food in the summer to offset the price of food that would be provided during the school year.

The second is the creation of a nationwide non-congregate option for summer meals, which will allow schools to offer grab-and-go items or up to ten days worth of meals that can be taken home at a time to be eaten later.

Both of these provisions – while new – were tested and found successful during the pandemic, Lisa Davis, senior vice preside of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign said.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to skyrocket childhood hunger rates, Congress acted swiftly to implement temporary versions of these policies that not only forestalled the worst impacts of the crisis, but helped to dramatically reduce the number of kids living with hunger,”​ she said.

By applying lessons learned during the pandemic to create “the first new permanent federal nutrition program in nearly 50 years, lawmakers are acknowledging that our country needs long-term solutions, not just temporary pandemic assistance, to end child hunger,” ​adds Feeding America’s chief government relations officer Vince Hall.

‘This will undoubtedly cause hardship for many’

To pay for these programs, Congress will cut back on funding for two temporary pandemic relief programs – pandemic EBT and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program emergency allotments.

While these programs helped some of the same families who will benefit from the new summer feeding programs, they also helped families without children – including older Americans and low-income households.

The shift in who receives funding could lead to a subtle shift in consumer demand at retailers whose consumer bases are more reliant on assistance. Families with younger children often buy different products than households with only adults. As such industry stakeholders may need to adjust inventories depending on their primary shopper base.

For some anti-hunger advocates the trade-off was undesirable but understandable.

“This will undoubtedly cause hardship for many at a time when inflation remains very high and families are struggling to make ends meet,”​ acknowledges Davis of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.

But, she argues, “we recognize that diverting these temporary funds to create permanent policies to close the summer meal gap is a trade-off worth taking.”

The Greater Chicago Food Depository does not share this sentiment. While the food depository acknowledges it is “excited”​ by the new provisions, it argues “Congress wrongly chose to fund the new investments in child nutrition programs by cutting SNAP emergency allotments”​ to help low-income households afford groceries at a time when elevated need continues amid inflation.

“Vital anti-hunger programs should never be pitted against each other. To revoke emergency benefit allotments prematurely will increase food insecurity and stress a charitable food system amid a years-long hunger crisis,”​ it notes.

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