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As Schools Shut Down, a New Federal Program Eased Child Hunger, Study Finds

Posted July 30, 2020 9:29 p.m. EDT
Updated July 30, 2020 9:34 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — An emergency federal program created in March to offset the loss of school meals led to substantial short-term reductions in child hunger, according to a new analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution.

As the coronavirus pandemic closed the nation’s schools, the program, Pandemic-EBT, aimed to help the 30 million children who rely on subsidized breakfasts and lunches, an often-overlooked part of the American safety net. The program distributed lump-sum payments equal to $5.70 for each lost school day, or roughly $300 per eligible child in a typical state.

In the week after each state issued its payments, child hunger fell by about 30%, the researchers found, reducing the number of hungry children by at least 2.7 million.

“That’s a large reduction, from a rate that was disturbingly high,” said Lauren Bauer, a Brookings researcher who was one of four co-authors on the study. It is not clear how long the reduction lasted.

With more than half of American schoolchildren eligible for subsidized meals, school closures eliminated an important source of food aid. While many school systems worked hard to distribute grab-and-go meals, they appear to have reached a limited share of eligible families.

By placing the value of the lost meal on benefit cards accepted in most grocery stories, Pandemic-EBT (for Electronic Benefit Transfer) promised more ease and choice, with payments projected to reach as much as $10 billion. But states have been slow to issue the payments and some families are still awaiting aid.

Congress is debating whether to renew the program to cover school closures in the fall. The House, which is controlled by Democrats, renewed and expanded Pandemic-EBT as part of a $3 trillion relief package it passed in May. The Republican-led Senate proposed a $1 trillion aid package this week with no renewal of the feeding program.

Surveys have found high rates of food hardship during the coronavirus pandemic, especially among families with children. But critics have questioned the precision of the measures and their comparability to pre-crisis rates.

The Brookings study focused most closely on one question from weekly Census Bureau surveys, which ask whether in the last week children in the household “were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” Among low-income households, the share saying that was sometimes or often the case fell to 26% in the week after the Pandemic-EBT payments began, from 37% before the payments.

Food hardship appeared to rise again the following week, though the change was not statistically significant. The study, by Bauer, Abigail Pitts, Krista Ruffini, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, did not include subsequent time frames.

Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute said the Census Bureau data generally overstates food hardship and expressed doubt about the precision of the Brookings study, though she supports an extension of Pandemic-EBT, which is also known as P-EBT.

“I think it’s likely that P-EBT has reduced food problems among households with children, but it’s very difficult to specify how much,” she said.

Is a 30% reduction in hardship a lot or a little? A bit of both, said Elaine Waxman, a hunger expert at the Urban Institute.

“Anything we can do to buffer the effects of hunger on children is really important, but even the school lunch program didn’t solve the whole problem,” she said. “The study is an early indication that P-EBT is one effective tool in the tool kit.”

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