Congress has authorized a new, more permanent Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program aimed at supplementing other efforts that target child hunger. Guidelines direct states to proclaim their interest by Jan. 1 for the benefits that begin next summer. Nebraska officials have yet to decide whether to participate. (Courtesy of Scott Olson/Getty Images)
LINCOLN — A child nutrition program poised to launch nationwide on a permanent basis could deliver an estimated $18 million in grocery-buying benefits to Nebraska families next summer.
While that’s an encouraging prospect to child welfare advocates and struggling families, state government officials first must decide whether to opt into the new Summer EBT program for children.
That has yet to happen — and a looming federal government deadline has some advocates antsy.
“If they do nothing there is going to be more child hunger, more stress on the emergency food distribution network in our state, which already is stressed,” said Eric Savaiano, food and nutrition access manager at Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit that combats poverty and discrimination.
Modeled after pilot projects and a nationwide pandemic-era initiative that’s now ended, Congress authorized the more permanent summer program via the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023.
It will offer an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card to children whose household income makes them eligible for free and reduced school lunches during the school year. Each youth would receive a card loaded with $120 to help buy food during months that school is out.
Estimated reach is 150,000 youths statewide
The funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture is intended to supplement, not replace, existing programs that help families, including summer meal sites and the year-round SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Based on Nebraska’s participation in the pandemic program, the Appleseed advocacy group estimates that 150,000 Nebraska kids would benefit next summer if the state opted into the new EBT program.
That amounts to a total of about $18 million in food benefits that would be fully covered financially by the federal government. Nebraska, like other states, would be responsible for half of the cost to administer its program.
Appleseed’s review shows Nebraska would be on the hook for up to $300,000 annually. That’s a change from the pandemic-era program, where the federal government paid all administrative costs. According to guidance from the USDA, states also are to conduct outreach efforts and facilitate collaboration among involved agencies.
Cortni Bowman’s family — including her husband and their three children, ages 7 to 14 — benefited last summer from Nebraska’s pandemic EBT program and are hoping for a return in 2024.
“It felt like this really great weight was lifted,” the South Sioux City mom said. “We used that money to stock our freezer with different meats. My kids were so happy to have a variety of fresh fruit to snack on as opposed to our bananas.”
For a bit of splurge, Bowman bought Cheez-It crackers for her kids instead of the usual Great Value brand.
“Anyone coming from a food insecure house can tell you how exciting it is to have that name brand food,” she said.
The summer boost would be good news, Bowman said, as food prices are growing along with her kids’ summer appetites.
Bowman has returned to school to study law, leaving her family with the single income of her husband, who works at a packing plant. They don’t qualify for year-round SNAP benefits, she said.
And the existing free summer meals program in her town isn’t as helpful to the family, she said, because lunches are offered on-site, and the closest spot is about six blocks and a busy street crossing away.
Jan. 1 deadline
Savaiano said another barrier to participation in the traditional summer meal site program is that there are fewer spots available.
According to state education data, he said, participating schools, community centers and other meal sites have dropped in number, from 270 in 2019 to 197 today.
If the new program were implemented, Bowman’s three-child household likely would get a total of about $360 next summer. On their own time, the family would find a store that accepts EBT and shop for food that meets their needs.
“I’m strategic in my buying,” Bowman said. ”I think we did a good job of making the other funds stretch as far as we could.”
If they do nothing there is going to be more child hunger, more stress on the emergency food distribution network in our state, which already is stressed. – Eric Savaiano, Nebraska Appleseed food and nutrition access manager
If they do nothing there is going to be more child hunger, more stress on the emergency food distribution network in our state, which already is stressed.
– Eric Savaiano, Nebraska Appleseed food and nutrition access manager
According to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees such nutrition programs, more than 29 million children across America could benefit from the 2024 Summer EBT program.
Under the federal requirements, each state, by Jan. 1, is supposed to notify the USDA of its intent to administer the program.
Gov. Jim Pillen’s office referred questions about the program to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. A DHHS spokesman on Friday said, in a statement to the Nebraska Examiner, that the department is reviewing information and “awaiting the interim final rule from FNS expected to be issued by the end of 2023.”
The state officials did not answer any further questions.
Savaiano said advocates are concerned about the state response so far. ”It seems they don’t have a strong voice” on the matter.
He and others pointed to growing demand for food assistance.
Alicia Christensen, director of policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Omaha-based Together Inc., said COVID-19 caused an unprecedented demand for emergency food in Nebraska. She said data from six area service organizations — including the Food Bank for the Heartland, which covers 77 counties, and Community Action of Nebraska, which covers 93 counties — shows continued strain.
For example, the groups report food pantry traffic rising from about 708,000 visits in 2018 to 2.1 million visits in 2022.
Ongoing need is attributable in part, said Christensen, to wages not keeping pace with inflation that’s driving up grocery prices.
With emergency food services “sort of maxed out at the moment,” Christensen said, she is pushing for help, and that includes the summer EBT program.
“It seems like a no-brainer to me,” she said.
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