May 27, 2021 - News

Arkansas group plans push to make pandemic food benefits permanent

Illustration of a school lunch tray with a sun embossed into it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Advocates are pushing to make a temporary pandemic food benefit program for kids on free or reduced-price lunch permanent.

Why it matters: Roughly 15% of kids in NWA are food insecure, according to Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. This has long-term negative effects on their health, including iron deficiency, neurological problems, poorer performance in school and anxiety.

The backdrop: The Pandemic EBT program was created last March to provide families whose kids receive free or reduced lunch with extra money for groceries while schools were closed due to COVID-19.

  • President Biden's American Rescue Plan extended the benefits through this summer, when those lunch programs typically take a hiatus.

Now Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families plans to push Congress to make the essentially year-round program permanent, said Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director.

  • Kellams says the the debit-like EBT cards issued during the pandemic give families more flexibility to feed their kids, plus don't require them to find transportation to summer feeding programs when school's out.
  • Families are also eligible regardless of whether they receive SNAP benefits, which Kellams says is important for reaching immigrant families, including many Marshallese residents in NWA.

Of note: The Arkansas Department of Human Services does not yet have a timeline for when families will receive this summer's benefits, spokesperson Amy Webb told Axios.

  • "Last year, it was really hard to get it to everyone who needed it," Kellams said. "We're really concerned and want to make sure families know this is coming in."

Resources: If you need help or you'd like to learn how to lend a hand, check out the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank or the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.

  • Also, some school districts offer free meals to anyone 18 or younger in various locations through the summer.

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