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From Pilot to Policy: Five Things to Know about Summer EBT
October 3, 2023
As we observe National Farm to School Month, School Lunch Week, and the harvest in October, we have a great deal to celebrate. In December 2022, Congress made a 10-year-old demonstration project, Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT), a permanent nationwide program to give families food assistance during the summer if their children are eligible for subsidized school lunches. Both Summer EBT, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program, and the observance month focus on creating an equitable food system and empowering children and their families to make informed food choices.
More than a decade of Abt evaluations have shown that Summer EBT reduces food insecurity and improves nutrition outcomes. Before the legislation, the existing USDA Summer Meals programs reached only about 16 percent of low-income children who get subsidized meals during the school year. The new program, which states, tribal organizations, and territories will start to roll out in 2024, will fill a gap when food insecurity increases in the summer.1 Under Summer EBT, families of more than 29 million low-income children will be eligible for grocery-buying benefits in the summer.
The knowledge Abt accumulated during the evaluations will provide a playbook for how to run Summer EBT programs. Abt generated insights that governing bodies can consider implementing, plus an intuitive, interactive digital dashboard to help officials understand program use and trends. It includes information from grantees who know local needs.
Here are five considerations for potential programs:
1. Advise retailers to allow for flexible food items. This may require information-sharing with retailers. If electricity is unreliable, for example, consumers can’t buy food that requires refrigeration. Advise retailers to stock substitutes for those items. One percent milk may sell better than skim milk. Encourage retailers to label the shelves where eligible foods are for Women Infants and Children (WIC)-based Summer EBT programs. Labeling makes shopping more efficient for consumers and enables retailers to know what they need to restock.
2. Use spatial analysis and mapping data. You need to know where eligible households live, how far they have to travel to shop at a participating store, and whether transportation is available. If the distance is too great, enlist more retailers closer to where eligible households are. Retailers that participate in WIC are a good starting point. Farmers markets may offer proximity and quality fresh fruits and vegetables.
3. Check which enrollment approach is the right one for you. Active consent requires families to sign up and may be more labor intensive than passive consent, a model that makes everyone eligible without signing up. Active consent’s data may be more accurate, and because this model requires more contact with people that the program serves, it helps foster trust and awareness. In addition, people may be eligible for several programs, and letting people choose the program that is most advantageous would require active consent. Evaluations show that benefit use rises when people can put Summer EBT on their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) card. It’s not clear which consent model will result in higher participation rates.
4. Test ways to boost redemption rates. Text benefit balances twice a month to increase redemption rates and send other texts weekly. Buying is higher after texts. Stock more cheese and eggs, which have the highest redemption rates. When payments rose, the redemption rates persisted, suggesting that program participants used the available funds.
5. Address barriers to participation. Increase program and card use knowledge. Identify your audience's preferred communication methods. Various tactics can work to communicate with your audience: text messages or mobile apps, call centers, grantee customer support, and teachers and schools. The communication can reveal barriers to participation and pave the way to address the issues.
As states, tribal organizations, and territories prepare to implement Summer EBT in 2024, Abt is well positioned to be a partner to these groups and to USDA in providing technical assistance for implementing best practices.