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Pennsylvania to participate in new food assistance program for kids this summer

  • Jillian Forstadt/WESA

 Jae C. Hong / AP Photo

While summer vacation is still months away, state officials have begun work on a new food assistance program launching this June.

Eligible Pennsylvanians will receive an extra $40 per student for each summer month as a result of the federally-funded Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program. Any student eligible for free or reduced school lunch will automatically qualify.

The Commonwealth is one of 35 states expected to administer the program this year, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates will serve close to 21 million children. That includes an estimated 900,000 students in Pennsylvania, according to state officials.

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

The program, he added, will build off the state’s universal free breakfast initiative, which received an additional $46.5 million in funding for the 2023-2024 school year.

“This school year, the Shapiro Administration is making sure all 1.7 million public school students in Pennsylvania have access to free breakfast at school,” Mumin added. “We will keep fighting hunger through Summer-EBT so that children can return to school after summer ready to learn.”

While the federal Summer Food Service Program provides meals to low-income students even when school isn’t in session, advocates say many children who rely on free and reduced-price school meals during the school year have trouble accessing distribution sites.

Butler County, for instance, didn’t have a single Summer Food Service Program site for all of last summer, according to Kelsey Gross, director of child nutrition programs at Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Gross said that even in Allegheny County, where there are about 200 summer meal sites, there are gaps in accessibility.

“There are always the areas that can’t be reached either because of eligibility or because there’s not a great partner organization to work with there that can host kids for the summer,” Gross explained. “So Summer EBT will really be felt by families throughout, even if there are summer food sites available.”

Families will receive a combined $120 for all three summer months per eligible student. Ann Sanders, public policy director for the Pittsburgh-based anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest, said while that number isn’t nearly high enough, it could make a difference.

“$120 is often the difference between maybe buying high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and being able to afford healthier options for some families,” Sanders said.

Families already receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or other benefit programs will see the additional dollars automatically uploaded to their existing EBT card.

Newly eligible families can apply and receive a new EBT card.

While the benefit is funded by federal dollars, states will share the responsibility and cost of administering the program with USDA.

“We know it’s not going to be easy for the state to do it and it’s going to require a lot of work for them,” Sanders added. “But this is also really important for families, and we’re really happy that they are taking these steps.”

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