Biden proposal will make free school lunch available to 29 million children every summer

Personal finance

President Joe Biden during a May 3 visit to Yorktown Elementary School in Yorktown, Virginia.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The latest economic recovery plan from President Joe Biden significantly expands school lunch programs for children.

If passed, it would provide free school lunch during summer break to 29 million children.

The $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, unveiled by Biden in late April, includes $45 billion to enlarge certain nutrition programs that assist families with children, many of whom have struggled with food insecurity amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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The bulk of that money, some $25 billion, is to be allocated to making summer electronic benefit transfers, or EBT, a permanent program. During Covid, the pandemic-EBT program sent money to families of students receiving free or reduced-price school lunch when school was not in session, including summer vacations.

“Expanding this program, not just during pandemic times when schools are closed, but when we always know that schools are closed — which is the summer — is both evidence-based and a welcome change from how we do business,” said to Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and associated with The Hamilton Project.

In an average month, the pandemic-EBT program gives an additional $114 per child to families, on top of any other supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, benefits they receive.

Other parts of plan

The nutrition benefits are the latest legislative moves to combat the food insecurity that has spiked amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In December 2020, former President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion stimulus bill that increased SNAP benefits 15% across the board. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed in by Biden in March expanded that 15% boost in SNAP benefits through September and gave states more flexibility to provide pandemic assistance to children younger than 6 that are not yet in school.

“One of the defining images, at least from my perspective, in this crisis has been cars lined up, cars lined up for miles,” said Biden during an April 28 speech to Congress. “Nice cars, lined up for miles, waiting for a box of food to be put in their trunk.”

The American Families Plan will also invest $17 billion in the Community Eligibility Provision, a program which allows schools in high-poverty areas to give students free lunch.

The bill would lower the threshold to apply for the benefit. Of the additional 9.3 million children who would get free meals from the expansion, 70% would be in elementary school.

It would also relax eligibility rules for SNAP. Under Biden’s proposal, all individuals convicted of a drug-related felony would be eligible to receive such benefits – currently, many of these individuals cannot get SNAP unless their state has modified or removed the restriction.

This disproportionately impacts families of color, and especially Black Americans, who see higher rates of conviction for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts.

“These are moms who are coming back to families with kids and trying to get their homes up and running again,” said Bauer, adding that children of such formerly incarcerated individuals are still eligible for SNAP, but that it stretches the already too-small benefit thin.

Summer program wouldn’t start right away

To be sure, instituting a permanent summer program wouldn’t start right away, as other provisions are in place to provide meals to children during Covid.

Pandemic food help will continue through the 2021-2022 school year and summer and could go on even longer, as it’s tied to the Covid public health emergency declaration In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in April that all children will receive universal free school lunch through June 30, 2022 due to the pandemic.

The provision in Biden’s plan would kick in after that, making the benefit available to millions of children every summer.

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