New York City finally got its first significant snowfall in nearly two years. Up in Buffalo, the NFL postponed the Bills playoff game given the 18 inches of snow that fell at the stadium. In the middle of winter, thinking about summer can seem far off. But it won’t be too long before we are back to enjoying picnics in the sunshine, going to the beach, and eating fresh and local tomatoes.
Fortunately, leaders in Albany have also been looking ahead to summer, for practical reasons: New York recently opted in to a new federal program called Summer EBT (the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer Program for Children).
My colleague Julia McCarthy recently laid out the benefits of Summer EBT in an op-ed in the Times-Union. I’ll share some of those highlights:
Summer EBT is a game-changer; the program will bring more than $200 million in federal funds to ensure that approximately 2 million school-aged children in New York can eat well this summer. Eligible families will receive $120 per child to buy groceries during the summer months. Those dollars will make a real difference for families who rely on free school meals during the academic year. And the model works; an evaluation of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer EBT demonstration project found that the program reduces very low food insecurity and increases healthy eating.
Summer EBT will give families the resources and flexibility that existing summer food programs like New York’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) don’t. For example, SFSP provides free meals and snacks at places like libraries, churches, pools, and summer rec programs, but its reach is limited. Particularly in rural areas where transportation is a challenge, it’s tough for families to consistently go to these sites. Having extra grocery money in their pockets will make it easier to buy healthy food for kids. The results so far are convincing: in the Summer EBT demonstration program, three-quarters of families used the benefits; by comparison, only about 1 in 4 eligible New York families participated in SFSP in 2019.
New York has done a lot to make free meals available during the school year. And that’s great because free school meals are proven to reduce food insecurity, improve mental and physical health, boost academic performance, and increase educational and economic equity. New York State’s 2023–24 budget included an additional $135 million to expand and fund free school meals. That’s led to an estimated additional 1,100 schools serving 300,000 students adopting free breakfast and lunch this school year.
Making sure New York’s kids can eat well during the summer is a logical next step. Hunger doesn’t stop when that final school bell rings in June.
Governor Hochul has committed to covering 50% of the administrative costs of operating the program, while USDA will cover the balance. Now, the challenge is to make sure that the Summer EBT program is implemented well:
- Families need to know they’re eligible and how to enroll. Schools, advocates, government agencies, community organizations, supermarkets and grocery stores, public health professionals, and health care providers could all play a role in helping to get the word out about Summer EBT.
- Signup needs to be simple and seamless for families. This could be the biggest challenge of all. In New York City, we’ve seen a significant backlog in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps) enrollments. Workforce shortages have delayed enrollment for thousands of potentially eligible participants, and changes in SNAP benefits following the expiration of pandemic-era boosts have created confusion among recipients. These same types of challenges could affect enrollment in Summer EBT.
- Grocery stores need to prepare to accept the new Summer EBT payments. Even if families are enrolled in the program, it needs to work where the rubber meets the road: at the point of sale. Cashiers need to be familiar with and trained on how to accept Summer EBT so kids can get the healthy food they need all summer long.
Getting a new program up and running is not easy, but I’m optimistic that Summer EBT will be successful. Leveraging hundreds of millions of federal dollars to help millions of New York children will make the summer months happier, healthier, and more carefree.