Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Before COVID-19, 11.2 million children lived in a food-insecure household. The dual public health and economic crises caused by the pandemic have only exacerbated the problem, leaving nearly 14 million children without enough to eat. Child hunger spikes in the summer with schools out of session, so that number likely will rise. With school openings this fall still uncertain, children may continue to lose out on free- or reduced-price nutritious meals.

Food insecurity — which often leads to poor nutrition — directly influences health and well-being throughout a child’s life. Food insecurity is specifically associated with poorer physical and mental health, lower school performance, and diminished psycho-social functioning. During this difficult time, Congress must ensure our children are kept fed and well-nourished so that the negative impacts of food insecurity will not be felt for years to come.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response (Families First) Act have increased food assistance benefits, but many have been left out. Nearly 40 percent of low-income families that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP) have not seen a single increase in benefits, including nearly 5 million children. The Pandemic-EBT program, authorized in the Families First Act to provide families with electronic benefit debit cards to replace lost school meals, had reached only 15 percent of the 30 million children it was intended to help two months after its launch. The program is due to expire at the end of September.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that the next aid package will be aimed at “kids, jobs, and healthcare.” Extending and increasing nutrition programs needs to be high on the list of ways we put kids first. The following are policies that should be included in any upcoming aid package.

Increase maximum SNAP benefits by 15% – and 20% for families with children.

SNAP is an incredibly effective anti-poverty measure that not only helps families get food on the table, but also boosts the economy. Every $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.50 to $1.80 in economic activity, and it is spent quickly. With children as 44 percent of all SNAP participants, the program serves as the first line of defense against child hunger and is linked to improved health outcomes. The previous aid packages allowed states to request emergency SNAP benefit increases and provided $15.5 billion to the SNAP program to address rising caseloads and short-term benefit increases. However, nearly 40 percent of low-income families that already received the maximum SNAP benefits saw no increase in the money they received, as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers only increased benefits up to the maximum monthly amount. The maximum benefit, therefore, needs to be increased by 15 percent – and 20 percent for families with children – to ensure that benefits are going to those who need it most.

Extend Pandemic-EBT Through the Summer and School Year 2020-2021.

The Pandemic-EBT program has helped feed many children during this crisis. Currently, 49 states have been approved to operate a Pandemic-EBT program. However, the crisis doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon, and an extension of the program beyond September 2020 is needed for struggling families. The program gives families $5.70 per day, per student that was eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals during the 2019-2020 school year. While some families received their benefits soon after schools closed, others are just now getting them retroactively. Families are issued an EBT card loaded with the benefits. The P-EBT program should be extended through the next school year in order to allow states to provide benefits for children missing out on school meals. Furthermore, current P-EBT policy stipulates that schools or districts need to be closed for a consecutive five school days during a public health emergency designation in order for families to be eligible. As many states and cities begin releasing their back to school plans, it is clear that there needs to be more flexibility in determining eligibility. For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has issued a plan for the city’s schools that would limit classroom attendance to a maximum of three days a week. The P-EBT program therefore must allow flexibility as many schools and districts plan for partial re-openings.

Shore Up School Nutrition Programs that are Facing Higher Costs and Lower Revenue.

More than 90 percent of school meal program directors anticipate or are uncertain about a financial loss for their programs for the previous school year, according to a survey by the School Nutrition Association. The survey also found that combined total losses for 861 school districts exceed $626.4 million. School nutrition programs have been an important source of food for children, and participating schools have reported serving 134 million meals in April 2020 alone. Any new aid package should include emergency funding for school nutrition programs that rely on reimbursements so that millions of children continue to receive nutritious meals.

Ensure Timely and Safe Access to Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The WIC program provides nutrition benefits for low-income pregnant or postpartum women, infants, and children under five. Proper nutrition in utero and in the first two years of life is essential to a child’s healthy neurological development and lifelong mental health, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Congress must ensure that WIC participants continue to receive benefits in a timely manner and provide further flexibility for enrollment for newly eligible families. The Families First Act granted the USDA the authority to approve waivers that allow WIC providers to conduct remote appointments, certify new participants and issue benefits remotely, and expand the allowable brands and package sizes of WIC-approved food items for the duration of the public health emergency. However, these waivers are set to expire Sept. 30. Any future coronavirus aid package must allow USDA to continue approving such waivers at least through next year. Congress must also increase the Cash Value Benefit that is used to purchase nutritious foods, raise children’s eligibility from age 5 to age 6, increase postpartum eligibility for up to two years, and extend infant and child certification for two years.

The coronavirus crisis presents a pivotal moment for the health of our nation’s children. While the CARES Act and Families First provided some critical relief, Congress needs to act now to ensure the health and safety of our children going forward. For more on these and other policy recommendations, see our April 2020 letter to Congress.