Almost 22 million children from low-income households receive free or reduced lunch during the school year. But when school lets out for the summer, many go without it. Fewer than 1 in 6 children take advantage of summer nutrition programs. That's a cause for concern because research shows that higher food insecurity not only harms a child's health, but hurts their ability to learn too.
Five years ago, officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to test a quick fix: During the summer, they uploaded a little extra money each month onto families' Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. That extra $60 in monthly welfare benefits reduced food insecurity and increased children's consumption of nutritious food.
"Parents worry about how they're going to feed the kids while they are out of school," said Belit Burke, a program administrator who oversaw Oregon's participation in the federal pilot. The extra financial boost in summer months "has really helped them to buy something more than ramen, something like fruit and vegetables."
It's not clear why so few eligible children participate in the two main summer nutrition programs funded by the federal government. In a 2003 survey, supervisors at summer meals sites attributed the low uptake to a handful of factors, such as lack of transportation, lack of publicity and limited operating hours.
Eight states participated in the USDA study: Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Texas and Washington state. All but two have received additional grant funding to provide the benefits again this summer.
The extra money reduced "very low" food insecurity by a third
For the experiment, the research firms Abt Associates, Mathematica Policy Research and Maximus reviewed people's food security over the past 30 days. When households have "very low" food security, they essentially don't have the money or the resources to get food, so they eat less -- or nothing at all. With "low" food security, by comparison, people might be consuming the same amount of food, but they've reduced the quality, variety or desirability of their diet. The researchers considered a household "food insecure" if it met either definition.
The chart below shows the results for the 48,431 study participants between 2011 and 2013. Researchers looked at the prevalence of very low food security and the broader category of food insecurity among children who received $60 in monthly summer food benefits. With the $60 benefit, the number of children in very low food secure households was 33 percent lower than in households without the benefit.
Source: Abt Associates
Parents reported that their children ate more nutritious food
The study also looked at people's reported food consumption to see if the benefits contributed to healthier eating. Parents with the $60 benefit said their children ate the equivalent of 3.3 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, compared to 2.9 cups for households without the benefit. Households with the benefit also reported higher consumption of whole grains and dairy, and less consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Researchers found that while the boost in summer food benefits resulted in eating better food, the impact was even bigger when families faced restrictions on what they could buy with the benefits. Some of the families were on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and could buy just about any kind of food. Other families were on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which only authorizes the purchase of nine categories of food, such as juice, eggs and milk. Families on WIC ate more nutritious food. For example, the size of the increase in fruit and vegetable consumption was about twice as big for children on WIC as it was for children on SNAP (an increase of half a cup vs. an increase of a quarter of a cup).
What the study means
Oregon is among six states and two tribal nations that recently won $29 million in grant funding to continue summer EBT card programs for another year. Despite the encouraging results, Burke said states aren't likely to implement a version of this program on their own because it's too expensive.
While Congress has extended and expanded funding at demonstration sites, it hasn't scaled up the program nationwide. Robert Doar, a fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, argues that Congress should limit the benefits to WIC participants because that showed bigger returns on healthy eating. "I would much prefer that the USDA and whoever implements this follow the evidence and pick the program that had the best two-fold effect," he said.
One downside to that idea is that families on WIC were less likely to use the benefits. Eligible families with WIC cards opted to participate at lower rates, and even when they did participate, they redeemed benefits at lower rates. The table below show the differences in the participation and redemption rates.
Source: Abt Associates
The researchers don't know for sure why people with SNAP cards used their benefits more, but it's likely a combination of the following factors: fewer stores accept WIC; each category of authorized food comes with a proportion of the monthly benefits, so if a family doesn't like a type of food -- canned tuna or salmon, for example -- they wouldn't redeem that part of the benefit; and under the study, WIC benefits expired at the end of the month in some cases, whereas SNAP benefits rolled over until the end of summer.
Either way, the federal study clearly influenced recommendations made earlier this year by the National Commission on Hunger, which Doar co-chaired. The group called on Congress to place a WIC-like restriction on SNAP benefits so that recipients couldn't buy sugar-sweetened beverages with their government subsidy. "SNAP benefits should help families meet their nutritional needs, not contribute to negative health outcomes through poor nutrition choices," the group explained in its final report.
The commission also recommended that the summer EBT card program be expanded to communities where it's not practical to expect families to participate in summer nutrition programs. Kobra Eghtedary, director of data, research and technology for the Michigan WIC program, agreed with the recommendation, adding that some summer meals sites are in remote places, and end up with a surplus of food because too few families come.