Parents, even under shelter-in-place orders, will venture out to feed their children. But deteriorating economic conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made it even more difficult for many low-income households, including those with children, to afford groceries. Food insecurity is on the rise, heightened by school closures and the loss of free school meals that are the frontline of defense against childhood hunger.
Children, their parents and school employees are today needlessly at risk because lost school meals have been replaced with “grab and go” alternatives. For a variety of reasons, from running out of food to stopping distribution during spring break, fewer children are receiving replacement meals than consume meals on a regular school day. In Fairfax County, Virginia, approximately 52,600 students receive free or reduced-price meals when school is in session. But the District of Columbia is distributing fewer than 20,000 meals daily during the closures. A study of low-wage workers in mid-March estimated that only 11 percent of families who were eligible picked up meals.
More than three weeks ago, Congress authorized a better system: Provide electronic grocery vouchers for the value of the lost school meals directly to families with children impacted by school closures. Recently, Michigan and Rhode Island became the first two states to receive permission to distribute these vouchers. Seven additional states – Arizona, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New York and Oregon – have submitted applications to the USDA and have not been approved.
All states should shut down school meal sites and move to the electronic grocery voucher plan.
In the immediate aftermath of school closures, public school systems and school staff did the right thing, taking selfless and heroic steps to continue food service to the more than 50 million children out of school. States have utilized flexibility offered by Congress and USDA to offer grab-and-go meals to replace school meals, sometimes allowing families to pick up meals for multiple days at a time and providing meals during spring break. Workers have been risking their own health to prepare and distribute meals to ensure that children have enough to eat.
With 14 states already ordering schools closed through the end of this academic year, it is time to rip off the band aid and adopt a sustainable and public-health conscious solution to the school meals program. Electronic grocery vouchers loaded with the value of missed school meals – about $125 per month – are the right solution.
Moving to electronic grocery vouchers will help protect the public health, because school meal sites themselves are hot spots for COVID-19 community spread. In at least 45 states, school districts have had to suspend or alter their meal distribution programs for breaks or because someone working at the program has tested positive for COVID-19. Because recipients will be able to redeem the benefits at regular grocery stores, families no longer have to worry daily about whether the district is going to run out of food or wonder what happens should a district shut meal distribution sites due to community spread.
The electronic grocery voucher program authorized by Congress and given the shorthand name “Pandemic-EBT” is new, but it is modeled after the successful “Summer EBT” program, which provides vouchers to purchase meals during summer break. Studies of Summer EBT found that it is successful at reducing rates of food insecurity among children, and that families use the benefits to provide meals that are as nutritious as those offered at school.
To be sure, states face administrative challenges: Pulling together lists of those eligible for benefits and distributing new electronic vouchers. But if a state wants to implement “Pandemic-EBT” and submits a workable plan, it is incumbent on the USDA to respond promptly and work with states to implement the program.
In the interest of public safety and the food security of children, states should be standing up electronic grocery vouchers and shutting down emergency school meal programs. Immediately. Given the severity of the coronavirus crisis, the duration of the stay-at-home orders and the likelihood of a deep recession taking hold, Congress should extend electronic grocery vouchers for children through this and every summer.
Lauren Bauer is a fellow at The Hamilton Project and in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. Diane Schanzenbach is the director of the Institute for Policy Research and the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor at Northwestern University.