The Biden administration is expanding a program to feed as many as 34 million schoolchildren during the summer months, using funds from the coronavirus relief package approved in March.
The Agriculture Department is announcing Monday that it will continue through the summer a payments program that replaced school meals because the pandemic left many children with virtual classes. Families of eligible children would receive $6.82 per child for each weekday. That adds up to $375 per child over the summer months.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the summer benefits a “first-of-its-kind, game-changing intervention to reduce child hunger in the United States.”
The program reflects the Biden administration’s attempts to nearly stamp out child poverty – an unprecedented push with money for parents, child care centers and schools that could revamp the social safety net. Conservative critics have warned that the spending, if made permanent, could undermine the willingness of poorer Americans to work.
Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at Agriculture, said that Congress previously approved limited funding for pilot programs to test the effectiveness of the payments. But the coronavirus relief package allowed it to be rolled out nationwide.
Besides the food aid, the relief package allowed parents to receive roughly $250 a month starting in July for each child between the ages of 6 and 17. Qualifying families with a child under 6 would receive $300 monthly. The payments are part of an enhanced child tax credit that would expire at the end of this year, according to the terms of the most recent coronavirus relief package.
In Southwest Florida, the increased food insecurity and the need too provide for children during a time when in-school resources were not accessible was unprecedented. Among those on the front lines for community members were nonprofits with their drive-through food lines.
“Out of all the people that we feed, and we feed hundreds of thousands every month, seeing kids go hungry, that just breaks my heart,” Richard LeBer, the CEO and president of Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, told WINK News. “And it’s unnecessary, and it has such a huge impact on the kids. Right?”
LeBer’s mission in life is to feed people faced with food insecurity. He told WINK News he supports Biden’s plan.
“It’s just very challenging for a lot of families to take advantage of the summer feeding programs,” LeBer said.
That’s because, until the pandemic, parents would have to physically get their kids to The School District of Lee County’s pickup location, which is usually a school.
“When kids can’t access the nutritional support, it has lasting damage,” said Jared Bernstein, an economic advisor for The White House. “So the fact that this program is going to provide around $375 of nutritional support over the summer months to about 30 million kids is going to be super important to them and their families.”
Elizabeth Alfaro, the director of nutritional services for Colier County Public Schools, thinks this will take a lot of pressure off a lot of struggling families.
“We had a couple of families that were just in tears because they received this,” Alfaro said. “So it was really unexpected to see the gratefulness and sometimes sadness and despair.”
President Joe Biden plans to extend the monthly payments through 2025. The extension would be part of a multitrillion-dollar plan that he intends to announce Wednesday in a joint address to Congress.
Democratic lawmakers have called for making the enhanced tax credit permanent, with Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Cory Booker of New Jersey and Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Suzan DelBene of Washington state and Ritchie Torres of New York issuing a statement last week.
“Expansion of the child tax credit is the most significant policy to come out of Washington in generations, and Congress has an historic opportunity to provide a lifeline to the middle class and to cut child poverty in half on a permanent basis,” the April 20 statement said.
When the school year ends, children have traditionally shifted to other forms of food aid such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. Yet administration officials said that summer feeding programs tend to reach less than 20% of the number served during the school year.
Children could qualify for the new summer benefit if they are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year or if they are under age 6 and live in a SNAP household. Children already on SNAP would get the benefits as a supplement to what they already receive.