Omnibus expands summer school meal assistance but cuts emergency SNAP


The $1.7 trillion spending bill being debated in the Senate on Wednesday is a big win for child nutrition advocates, but it comes at a price.

The measure would give millions of children easier access to healthy food during the summer months. But to pay for the new benefits, Congress will reduce pandemic-era investments in food assistance programs for food-insecure Americans.

The compromise included in the spending bill, which must pass this week to avert a government shutdown, is one of many trade-offs Democrats and Republicans made as they cobbled the bill together in the narrowly divided Congress.

The Senate voted 70-25 on Tuesday to begin debate on the 4,155-page measure, known in congressional parlance as an omnibus, which would fund key elements of President Biden’s economic agenda. It would boost defense programs, extend Medicaid, help Americans save for retirement and provide an additional $44.9 billion in emergency military and economic assistance for Ukraine, among other provisions.

The child nutrition benefits would be the first new, permanent federal food assistance program of this magnitude enacted in nearly 50 years, advocates say. They would create a debit card program beginning the summer of 2024 that provides low-income families with a $40 grocery benefit per child per month, adjusted for inflation. Kids would be eligible for these benefits if they qualify for free or reduced-price school meals and can be automatically enrolled.

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The bill also would allow families in rural areas to get school meals delivered during the summer rather than having to pick them up on-site, which can be difficult in regions where schools draw students from many miles away. And rather than requiring meals be consumed at school, kids can take home or get delivered up to 10 days’ worth of meals at a time.

Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign estimates that 6 out of 7 children who participate in free or reduced-price school meals are unable to access the summer meals program because of cumbersome logistics, which puts many at risk of hunger.

But while advocates lauded the changes, they criticized the eliminations of pandemic-era bumps in food stamps, or SNAP, and school meal benefits aimed at helping families through the health emergency. Lawmakers said the cuts were necessary to pay for the new benefits. The reductions, advocates said, will particularly hurt the elderly poor, who often have smaller household sizes and greater savings and thus qualify for smaller food-assistance benefits.

Congress unveils $1.7 trillion deal to fund government, avert shutdown

“Cutting SNAP to pay for child nutrition is not the right choice,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center. “The emergency allotments for SNAP were aligned with the public health emergency, which is not over. We still are in a public health emergency. These allotments have been a huge benefit to families to make ends meet at a time when we’re still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic.”

Recipients of all ages would lose benefits beginning as early as March 2023, she said, with families on average losing $82 per person, per month. But the steepest loss would be for older adults at the minimum benefit level who will see their monthly SNAP benefits fall from $281 to $23.

Biden renewed a free program to feed needy kids. Most states haven’t even applied.

Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry, described the tradeoff as “a little bit of a Sophie’s Choice,” but that it is still “a big sleeper win” for food security in the United States.

“I don’t want to downplay that ending the pandemic allotments will create hardship for some people” at a time when inflation is making it harder for many to make ends meet, she said. “As hard as it is to prematurely end or scale back temporary pandemic programs that help families put food on the table, using those temporary funds to create permanent programs is a tradeoff worth taking.”

Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) pushed for these provisions in the spending bill. The bill also includes new protections for families whose SNAP benefits have been stolen in the wake of a spate of thefts. This legislation gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture and states the authority to reissue nutrition benefits to victims of this fraud and to increase security measures.

The child nutrition language included in the bill incorporates parts, but not all, of the House’s reauthorization of the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, Scott said in a statement. This was a House bill released in July aimed at increasing access to free school meals for children in high-poverty schools while strengthening nutrition standards.

“This proposal falls far short of a comprehensive reauthorization that America’s children and families deserve, although I am grateful we will be able to make some progress toward our ultimate goal of eliminating child hunger,” Scott said in the statement. Stabenow said in a statement that she remains committed to passing a comprehensive child nutrition reauthorization, and also to protecting the SNAP program as legislators begin work crafting the next Farm Bill, which determines funding for all food assistance programs.