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USDA: Pandemic EBT benefits are now retroactive, and will apply to kids 0-6

New guidance extends pandemic food benefits to families with young children, adding flexibility to how states administer assistance

People wait in line for donations outside a food distribution facility in Manhattan. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The Biden administration announced Friday it will expand pandemic EBT benefits to infants and young children as part of a package to get more food aid to young families who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus-induced recession.

The measure follows President Biden’s executive order last week to expand food assistance programs. This new initiative aimed at the 12 million families receiving pandemic EBT (which is meant to replace free or subsidized meals for kids now learning online) will also give states added flexibility to swiftly distribute the benefits.

“Within one week, the USDA is executing on the president’s directive and getting more money into the hands of kids and families who need it,” Stacy Dean, who last week was named deputy undersecretary for the Agriculture Department’s food, nutrition and consumer services, told The Washington Post. “We are committed to acting quickly so states can set up and deploy these programs right away.”

The initiative increases pandemic food assistance benefits, intended for those children who would have qualified for subsidized school meals were schools in session, by 16 percent. Children 0-6 will now also be eligible.

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New guidance allows states to be more flexible. For example, Dean says, a state could rely broadly on local school-closure ordinances without having to verify that a particular child-care facility or school is closed.

The increase will be retroactive to July 1 for school-age kids and to October 1 for preschool-age children. For a family with three school-age children, the increase would be about $50 per month, which would amount to a total payment, in a debit card form, of $350.

This is significant because very few children eligible for this program have gotten money for it since October, when the new federal fiscal year started, according to Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. Pandemic EBT was authorized for last school year, and the federal government asked states to reapply for the 2020-2021 school year. Most states have not yet been approved.

The USDA’s website indicates only Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Vermont have been approved thus far to operate a pandemic EBT program for the 2020-2021 school year. New Mexico was approved Friday.

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Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, says states had been in limbo and waiting for guidance on administering aid to young children. Families with preschool-age children often have the added financial burden of paying out of pocket for child care, and new mothers taking time off from work often render families more financially vulnerable.

“This is a massive and effective anti-hunger program targeted to low-income children who have lost so much during the pandemic,” she said. “The Biden administration is doing everything in its power to turn back time, but it’s a tragedy in some sense because with food you can’t make up for lost time, a skipped meal is a skipped meal.”

Dean says pandemic EBT benefits for school-age younger kids will extend through Sept. 30. She does not yet know when cards for retroactive benefits will begin going out to recipients. But she says there is no risk of funds running out as they were approved in the omnibus stimulus relief act in December to “use such sums as may be necessary.”

“We’re pleased Congress gave us the flexibility to spend what is needed,” Dean said.