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Biden Signs Executive Order to Boost Food Benefits for Children Missing School Meals

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 22, 2021 2 min read
The Washington family receives free meals at Dillard High School amid the virus outbreak and school closings on March 16, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

An executive order signed by President Joe Biden is intended to address food insecurity caused by the pandemic by extending a benefit to a federal nutrition program and focusing resources on children who have missed meals due to closed schools over the last several months.

The executive order, signed by Biden on Friday, directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider issuing new guidance to allow states to increase emergency benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly called SNAP) that Congress has approved but have not been made available to those in need due to the pandemic.

In addition, the executive order asks the USDA to issue guidance increasing Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) payments by 15 percent in order to “increase access to nutritious food for millions of children missing meals due to school closures,” according to a fact sheet about the executive order. The administration estimates that this would provide an additional benefit of $100 to a family of three every two months. Pandemic EBT was established by a coronavirus relief bill enacted last March.

In addition, Biden is calling on Congress to extend a 15 percent increase to SNAP benefits.

In a speech discussing the executive order, Biden said it would provide critical support to families that “can’t provide meals for their kids who are learning remotely at home [and] are not receiving the regular meal plans that they have at school for breakfast or lunch.” The Biden administration says a hunger crisis is affecting up to 12 million children, citing data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Food insecurity has been one of the biggest issues facing children as well as schools during COVID-19. In an EdWeek Research Center study of recent U.S. Census Bureau surveys about the pandemic’s most acute affects, for example, 16 percent of families who said they had enough to eat before the coronavirus now say their children sometimes or often must go without food.

The Pandemic EBT program has been praised by researchers about how it has supported children in need. A Brookings Institution report from last July, for example, estimated that Pandemic EBT lifted between 2.7 million and 3.9 million out of hunger. Yet those researchers also said officials should both extend and expand the program. And recent media reports have highlighted how USDA food benefits in many cases haven’t reached the children they’re intended to help during the pandemic.

“The most effective way to ensure families with children have enough to eat is by providing them with the resources to purchase the food they need. Increasing SNAP and Pandemic EBT benefits will do this,” said Lisa Davis, a senior vice president of Share Our Strength, a group that works to eliminate childhood hunger, in a statement responding to the executive order.

Meanwhile, over the course of the pandemic, education groups have successfully lobbied for the federal government to establish and maintain waivers from standard school meal requirements. Ensuring that those meals reach children under the pandemic’s constraints has been a significant logistical challenge for schools.

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