Food prices are soaring, but Arkansas turned down grocery money for kids

Arkansas families are missing out on more than $100 million in grocery money that they could have used to buy meals for the state’s lowest-income schoolchildren over the summer.

That’s because our state didn’t submit what’s called a Pandemic EBT plan for the 2021-22 school year.

Pandemic EBT is one of the really creative public policy solutions that provided a lifeline to families who have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one of the best ways the state and federal governments figured out how to feed hungry kids when schools initially shut down in the spring of 2020.

The entirely new program provided electronic benefit transfer cards (known as EBT cards) to help make up for the cost of breakfasts and lunches that children would have otherwise received at school for free or for a reduced price. The program provided grocery purchasing cards directly to the families. It not only replaced meals missed when schools shut down because of a COVID outbreak, but it also replaced the ones kids missed when schools shut down for summer break.

The federal program continues today, but Arkansas is no longer participating. That’s a mistake we’ve made at the state level – one that’s going to make it more difficult for low-income Arkansas to families to feed hundreds of thousands of our state’s children over the next few months. As schools close for the summer, and other federal COVID-relief programs end, it’s going to make this season harder on families than it has to be.

Most states continued the Pandemic EBT program (you can see a list of states here) even though schools no longer closed widely because of the pandemic. But we did not. Because the summer program is tied to whether the state submitted a plan for the school year, Arkansas families won’t get Pandemic EBT benefits over the summer.

In Arkansas, 65 percent of schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the federal National School Lunch Act. That’s 310,000 children. The Pandemic EBT benefits would have been about $35 a week, per child, or about $400 for the summer months. And that adds up fast statewide, for a loss of more than $100 million in children’s meals over the 11 or 12 weeks most schools are closed.

Just like a recent decision to send much of Arkansas’s share of federal rent-relief funding back to Washington, D.C., there’s no reason to forgo this funding that could otherwise help Arkansas families. In a state in which 22% of the children live in poverty, and two-thirds of school children are low-income, we cannot afford to dismiss federal dollars that could help provide safety and security for families in need.

This is happening at the same time we’ve seen food prices soar. It puts children at even greater risk of hunger over the summer, and it increases their likelihood of summer learning loss.

Of course, there are other programs that help feed hungry kids in the summer. For example, Summer Nutrition Programs often include educational programing in addition to nutritious meals. But their reach is limited. Families in rural areas, particularly low-income families, too often are unable to access those meals because of transportation barriers. In addition, Congress has failed to renew waivers that have been making these programs more accessible. They will end on June 30th at the time kids will need them the most.

Considering these limits, we strongly urge policymakers to consider making Pandemic EBT a permanent, structured program that helps feed children over the summer. The proposed American Families Plan, legislation that failed to pass Congress in 2021, sought to expand the program and making it permanent.

The Pandemic EBT program was one of the bright spots in public policy over the last few years, getting grocery money directly to the parents of children who needed it most. We should learn from our successes. As Congress considers what should be included in the next round of proposed legislation, this program should be near the top of the list.