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Big Win for Children’s Nutrition: Summer EBT Fully Funded
February 1, 2023
Authors: Abt Associates Food & Nutrition Team, Lead: René Nutter
“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
For too many kids, one good meal a day is a victory. And for more than a decade, they have achieved that victory thanks to the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT) pilot program. It has given the families whose children are eligible for free or reduced-price school-lunch meals money to buy groceries during the summer so they can have at least one good meal all year round. Since 2011, Abt Associates evaluated various aspects of the pilot each year, figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and how it impacts children’s nutrition in 13 states and intertribal organizations.
Now, in a model for the way program evaluations should work, our studies can help inform the national rollout of the program next year (starting in 2024). In December, Congress authorized Summer EBT, which is funded by the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), as a permanently-authorized nationwide program. The program will be a boon for the more than 20 million kids who lose access to this important nutritional aid when school is out of session. The new program will continue to support children who received help from the pandemic-EBT program after losing access to free or reduced-price school meals during the pandemic.
Our evaluations have accumulated a significant amount of data and analyses. We know what participants bought, how much of the benefits they used, the programs’ impact on dietary nutrition, and more. For example, Abt found that households were more likely to use their benefit if it was loaded onto their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) card.
Abt also evaluated how different benefit levels affected measures of food insecurity. Overall, a smaller benefit ($30/child) was less effective than a larger benefit ($60/child) in reducing food insecurity. However, both benefits were equally effective at reducing severe food insecurity. In addition, mean daily fruit and vegetable consumption increased by a third of a cup. “Fruits and vegetables aren’t cheap,” says one Summer EBT recipient. The benefit “allowed us to have better quality food.”
Our years of evaluations and reports on Summer EBT data can provide vital information for scaling up the program. Consider our work in spatial analyses. We found that in the 2015-2018 pilot years, the greater number of participating grocers in urban areas compared with rural areas didn’t affect family participation rates.
Additionally, we kept data on program costs – not only the amount paid in benefits, but also administrative, logistical, and material costs. This data will be important for budgeting for the expanded program since we found that maximizing participation is labor-intensive—and expensive. States can use the data to decide how to best implement their Summer EBT program.
Abt staff gathered program insights from grantees, schools, grocery retailers, and families of enrolled children in focus groups and interviews. Our implementation study has followed grantees for years and is a rich resource for new sites. It highlights implementation challenges as well as strategies that worked well to ensure maximum impact, such as the ideal timing for organizing logistical pieces for a smooth implementation. Additionally, we combined all data into an intuitive digital dashboard to enable USDA/FNS—at the click of a mouse—to view combinations of data such as how many dollars were spent on milk in 2018 or how many families had two or more children participate in 2019.
All of this will be invaluable to nationwide implementation and help programs reach more children, streamline the programs’ implementation, and meet the needs of families across the country. As one 2020 Summer EBT recipient put it: “It’s wonderful. I take the kids to the grocery store and allow them to pick out their own food. It encourages them to eat healthy.” With the expanded Summer EBT program, the nation’s neediest will be at least a third of the way to making MLK’s dream a reality.