Congress remains at a standstill over passing another coronavirus rescue package, but tens of millions of people still can't afford enough food for themselves and their families six months after the pandemic began upending Americans' lives.
Hunger has soared during the outbreak, and advocates are calling on lawmakers to extend two key child nutrition relief measures in their spending bill before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. They are also pushing Congress to boost food stamp benefits, which will also help stimulate the economy.
Nearly 11% of adults said in July that their households sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat, up from 3.7% in 2019, according to Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. The share of adults in household with children in this situation was more than 14% in July, also far higher than last year.
Here's what's at stake:
As part of its mid-March coronavirus rescue package, Congress created the Pandemic-EBT program, which provided low-income families with money to replace the free or reduced-price meals their children would have received in school.
These benefits, which were distributed to more than half the school-age children in the US, amounted to between $250 and $450 per student, depending on how long his or her school was closed in the spring.
Now that the new school year has begun, at least nine states have received approval from the US Department of Agriculture to provide families with money to replace meals that would have been served in August and September. Other states are awaiting approval.
But the program ends September 30, so advocates are pushing lawmakers to include funding for the rest of the school year in the annual government spending bill currently under discussion. Also, the program rules need to be tailored to allow children in hybrid learning programs to participate.
The extra funds made a difference this past spring. During the week after the benefits were paid, the share of children not getting enough to eat declined by more than 30%, according to an estimate done by The Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative of the Brookings Institution. This translates into reduced hunger for roughly 3 to 4 million children, the authors said.
Though schools still provided grab-and-go meals, the Pandemic-EBT funds reached more families in need at time when they tried to remain at home as much as possible.
"It's not an extra trip," said Whitmore Schanzenbach. "It just means that on the trips you take to the grocery store, you get more money to spend."
The Pandemic-EBT program delivered between $7 billion and $10 billion in food assistance in the spring. But that cost is "minimal" and the program replaces some meals that weren't being served in school, said Stacy Dean, vice president of food assistance policy at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noting that federal spending on school meals in the spring and summer was down.
School meal program
The US Department of Agriculture has extended the waivers that allow families to pick up meals at school through the rest of 2020.
But the measures should last the entire school year to give districts and parents more certainty and more time to plan, said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, which seeks to end hunger and poverty.
She points to a lag in the extension of certain waivers that left schools unable to provide take-home meals to certain households until the USDA acted on August 31, forcing some parents to go home empty-handed.
These flexibilities have allowed families to take home meals from any participating school, not only the ones their children attend. Also, they could pick up food for children too young to attend school, and they didn't need to prove their eligibility for the free- and reduced-price program, which feeds about 22 million low-income children.
Some 61% of parents whose children were in the free or reduced-price school meal program before the closure received meals in May, according to a study by the Urban Institute.
The window to extend the waivers is closing. The USDA either must do so by September 30 or Congress must renew the agency's authority by that time.
"Somebody needs to act because there are way too many kids missing meals, and it doesn't have to be this way," Davis said.
The school meals program costs roughly $19 billion a year.
Lawmakers took a few steps to enhance the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as the food stamp program is formally known, this spring,
But Congress has not agreed to temporarily raise the level of payments, as it did during the 2008 financial crisis.
Democrats pushed several times for a 15% boost to the maximum food stamp benefit this year, including it in the House coronavirus relief bill in May. It would provide each recipient with roughly an additional $25 per month.
But the measure did not make it into any final legislation amid Republican opposition, and the odds of passing another rescue package in coming weeks are slim.