Pennsylvania to offer summer lunch program for low-income families

Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, PA.

As 15 Republican governors rejected a federally funded summer lunch program for low-income families, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration announced on Wednesday that Pennsylvania will participate in the initiative, aimed at curbing child hunger.

Pennsylvania is one of 35 states that opted in to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program, which Congress approved as part of a bipartisan budget agreement in 2022. 

Beginning in June, the participating states, as well as four tribes and five territories, will provide funding for groceries for about 21 million children in low-income families across the country, including 600,000 to 900,000 children in Pennsylvania. Shapiro administration officials said Wednesday that the state will provide $120 per child to help eligible families purchase groceries in the summer months when children do not have access to free meals at school.

“Children cannot learn on empty stomachs, and the need for healthy and nutritious meals doesn’t end with school,” Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Khalid N. Mumin said in a press release.

Pennsylvania will issue the $120 for the summer groceries on a family’s existing EBT card. If a family does not have an EBT card, a new one will be issued. Most children who are eligible for the program will be enrolled automatically in Pennsylvania, according to the Shapiro administration. A limited number of families will need to submit an application through the state Department of Human Services.

The summer food program will provide about $2.5 billion in relief nationally, according to the USDA. Funding for the initiative comes from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, which Congress passed in December 2022 and which earmarked about $28.5 billion for child nutrition programs.

The federal program comes on the heels of Pennsylvania’s 2023-24 budget, which includes $46.5 million to fund free breakfast for all of the state’s 1.7 million public school students during the school year. That funding also provides free lunch to the 22,000 Pennsylvania students who are eligible for reduced-price lunches through the federally funded National School Lunch Program.

“Summer-EBT builds upon the work Governor Shapiro and his administration are already doing to address student hunger by securing funding in the 2023-24 budget to provide universal free breakfast for more than one million public school students,” Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Val Arkoosh said in a press release. “We are so pleased to offer this program to the students who need it so they can continue to access these meals during the summer months while schools are closed.”

Officials in both the Biden and the Shapiro administrations noted it’s especially crucial to provide funding for summer groceries because families are increasingly going hungry throughout the state and the country. Food insecurity is on the rise in the United States in part because federal pandemic aid, like additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, has ended. The USDA reported that 17.3% of households with children did not have enough food in 2022, an increase from 12.5% in 2021. About 1.7 million people in Pennsylvania are struggling to access enough food, according to the Shapiro administration.

Despite this growing hunger, 15 Republican governors said their states would not participate in the federally funded summer groceries program. Those 15 states are Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Idaho, Texas, Vermont, South Carolina, South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Nebraska. 

“An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a press release.

Experts emphatically refute that claim. Erica Kenney, a Harvard University assistant professor who studies childhood nutrition programs, told the Washington Post that children can struggle with obesity while not having enough to eat. 

Numerous researchers have documented the connection between poverty and obesity; those with fewer resources are far more likely to be obese than those who can afford nutritious food, the USDA pointed out in a 2015 article.

Biden administration officials said the Republican governors’ move would be devastating for millions of children who could have received free meals.

“It’s sad,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Washington Post. “There isn’t really a political reason for not doing this. This is unfortunate. I think governors may not have taken the time or made the effort to understand what this program is and what it isn’t.”

Vilsack told the publication that the USDA is in talks with some of the states that have not opted in about joining the program this year or next.

Shapiro, meanwhile, is working to address food insecurity not only with the summer meals program and universal breakfasts but also by launching the PA Food Policy Council, which will address such issues as child hunger; providing $1.6 million for a grant program that expands access to emergency food supplies in underserved areas; and using $8.8 million in federal funds to connect low-income older people with food sources. This week, the Shapiro administration announced it had awarded $1 million in grants to colleges and universities to combat student hunger on campuses. 

“Students of all ages learn best when they start the day with a full stomach and are better prepared to succeed when they have access to nutritious, healthy food,” Shapiro said in a press release.