Credit: Photo courtesy of Marietta City Schools Nutrition Department
End of school year meets end of expanded food subsidies for Georgia children
Families in Georgia will no longer receive extra money for groceries to help keep children’s stomachs from growling during the summer.
Households in Georgia are no longer eligible for the Pandemic-EBT benefits that enhanced the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The expanded program provided hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of food for families over the last two years. The resulting loss adds to worries for Georgia’s food banks, which continue to try to fill an increased demand as a result of the pandemic. Community food banks are often the last resort for families facing hunger.
Georgia’s program that most recently provided enhanced federal benefits for nearly 770,000 Georgians comes to an end after the state declined to submit an application that would have covered summer break and next school year’s payments.
The Georgia Department of Human Services announced in early May that SNAP recipients would begin receiving their normal monthly allocations beginning June 1.
During the 2019-2020 school year, the state provided more than $290 million in expanded benefits to 1.1 million children who qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches.
It expires at the start of summer break when the USDA reports that grocery prices are 10.8% higher than last year and while the cost of gas has spiked in recent weeks, adding to the financial strain on many families.
“It’s pretty well documented that food insecurity and hardship during the summer is heightened for low-income families with children, the ones that are used to getting free- or reduced-price meals during the school year,” said Poonam Gupta, a research analyst with the nonprofit think tank Urban Institute, which issued a report on the operations of the program.
The program that allowed families to use debit cards to purchase food rolled out in 2020 at a time when many schools were not teaching in classroom settings followed by a mix of virtual and in-person learning. The past two years, volunteers stepped up to fill the void left by fewer school meal options.
The end of the program could mean a loss of $120 million in SNAP benefits for families, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
While many Georgians have returned to their pre-pandemic normal routine, many Black families and low-income households are still reeling from the economic downturns. The food assistance program is also more widely used in rural communities, such as areas of Georgia with some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, wrote Ife Finch Floyd, a senior economic justice policy analyst at GBPI.
“Georgia is emerging from the pandemic’s economic downturn, but the recovery is unequal and the inequities that existed before the pandemic persist,” Finch wrote in a May 18 analysis. “Policymakers should utilize temporary stimulus dollars as a starting point to advancing racial equity and should consider how to use state and federal resources for a vision of Georgia where Black, Brown, and white people, urbanites and long-time rural residents have a foundation for economic opportunity.”
Kemp’s spokeswoman Katie Byrd encouraged Georgians dealing with food insecurity to look for alternatives, including a state summer meals program for students and regional food banks, to supplement normal benefits provided under SNAP.
While the pandemic SNAP benefits have run out, Kemp has recently announced federal grant awards to several food banks to combat food insecurity. That includes $29.5 million for the Atlanta Community Food Bank and a total of $8.3 million for the America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia and Georgia Mountain Food Bank.
In addition, the governor has established a state program for tackling fresh produce shortages at regional food banks.
“In Georgia, we were the first to reopen our economy safely and appropriately,” Byrd said in a statement. “We protected both lives and livelihoods, and now, our state is rebounding at a faster rate than any other state. Our unemployment rate has hit record lows, and more Georgians are employed than ever before.
“Beginning in June, each SNAP household in Georgia will receive benefits based on the usual factors in determining eligibility, including household size, income, and deductions,” Byrd said.
There was unanimous statewide participation when the extra benefits program was first established in 2020 as part of the American Rescue Act.
But there have been some bureaucratic hiccups along the way, which led to states like Georgia retroactively dolling out their funding last year since states didn’t get federal approval at first.
“One of the big issues with P-EBT is that guidance comes out so late from USDA and (Food and Nutrition Service) that states don’t really have enough time to put a plan together in a timely manner and get benefits out,” Gupta said.
Putting together a plan for the added pandemic while also handling other assistance programs became a heavy lift over the last year, leaving many state SNAP administrators overworked.
In the meantime, as students returned to mostly in-school classroom environments, school officials were tasked with collecting data, such as if a student missed school due to a quarantine, or other factors, and there was no central database to keep track of the new information, according to Gupta.
Still, the latest round of applications has been approved for 30 states, including Georgia’s neighbors.
Georgia’s food banks in 2021 distributed 205 million pounds of produce and other groceries as some of the need slowly waned from 2020’s pandemic peak but was still 30% higher more than pre-pandemic levels, according to the Georgia Food Bank Association.
The decrease in benefits comes at a difficult time for many Georgians in need as well as food banks, said Georgia Food Banks spokeswoman Callie Roan.
“As a network, we’re concerned but remain vigilant as we enter the peak summer months when many kids are no longer receiving meals at school and instead are eating out of their families’ pantries more often” she said. “With support from communities and our federal and state partners, our food banks will continue to work together across the state to meet the need to the greatest extent possible, despite the obstacles.”
Summer school meal programs
The program does wrap up while most of the school districts across the state are starting up summer meal programs, with some support from another federal grant program.
For instance, the Marietta City School District will provide free meals for anyone under the age 18 until July 22. Meals are offered at 37 locations across the city while some places also offer pick up services of five days’ worth of breakfast and lunch.
The flexibility of school meal programs that really picked up at the beginning of the pandemic during school closures has been greatly beneficial for students across the state, said Linette Dodson, the school nutrition director for the Georgia Department of Education.
The upcoming school year also marks the end of a federal waiver program that allowed Georgia school systems to offer free lunches to all students regardless of family income level.
Prior to the pandemic, about 60%, a little over 1 million Georgia public school students were eligible for free and reduced meals.
Dodson said she’s been impressed with the commitment from local school districts and their school nutrition programs since the start of the pandemic.
“I think we can continue to meet the needs of Georgia students and I feel confident even with the transitions that are going to be occurring in the next school year,” she said. “I know that our local programs are very big committed to continuing to provide school meals and of course, we are committed to supporting them with that.”
Kemp faces political criticism
While Kemp easily won the May 24 GOP primary for governor, he is facing criticism for allowing emergency food benefits to expire.
Former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee, publicly attacked her November opponent last week.
“Just recently, this is the governor who in the midst of rising costs for food and a baby formula shortage has decided to decline $120 million in benefits for working families in Georgia who need help with food,” Abrams said at a press conference.
“This is going to hurt Georgiana across the board, especially rural Georgians and Georgians who are desperately in need of support, because while he may have declared the pandemic over, it is not over for millions of Georgians and they deserve his help, not his scorn,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat from Gwinnett County, wrote to Kemp in March, urging his administration to finish the application for the 2021-2022 school year to avoid jeopardizing the children’s access to food during the summer.
“During the summer months, children are most vulnerable to food insecurity since schools are out of session and summer meal programs only reach a small percentage of children,” McBath wrote on her congressional letterhead to Kemp on March 3.
Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.
What to know:
The Pandemic-EBT benefits program will no longer be available starting Wednesday, June 1. Expanded benefits provided extra money for groceries during the school year and summer months.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.