February 08, 2021

Feeding kids, boosting local economies

 I've spent a chunk of the last seven or eight years working intermittently on child nutrition issues, which has a certain amount of irony. After all, the organization I work for, the American Friends Service Committee, first came to West Virginia in 1922, in large part to work on child nutrition issues. 

How sad is it that it's still an issue year 99 years later?

It's an unfortunate truth that today  a lot of kids rely heavily on schools for meeting their nutrition needs, up to and including volunteer weekend backpack programs. 

I first got involved in 2013 when the state legislature passed the Feed to Achieve Act, which was intended to eventually provide free breakfast and lunch for all public school students. One way that would work was by encouraging more counties to implement the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows them to provide free meals to all students in schools where 40 percent or more are certified as being low income. Basically, it eliminates the application process for free and reduced meals.

It's a winner all round. More kids eat (mostly) healthy meals, which can help with learning, discipline, tardiness and attendance. Schools cut paperwork and often save money. Any stigma for being on free or reduced meals is gone. And working parents get a break. 

Most counties jumped on board as soon as the program became available and others followed suit through the years. Some took some nudging, sometimes for years. But now, 54 out of 55 counties have implemented the program to a degree and 43 have done so on a countywide basis. Often, a county would try it at a few schools and then expand it after seeing the benefits. And the WV Office of Child Nutrition has done a great job in helping to make all this happen.

Enter COVID-19. Last spring, the USDA provided pandemic electronic benefit cards (P-EBTs) worth $313.50 per child to all students to help cover out of school food costs. In schools with CEP, all kids get the benefits; in those without, only those on free or reduced lunch qualify. Many benefitted but some missed out.

This is where child nutrition translates into direct economic impact. That round of P-EBTs brought around $72 million to local economies in the midst of a pandemic-induced recession. The USDA estimates that each dollar spent on EBT food assistance has a multiplier effect of  $1.5, which would increase the economic boost to $108 million.

The USDA recently announced a second round of P-EBT cards to be issued next month. The benefit will amount to $6.82 per day for days out of school in the 2020-2021 school year. That means somebody's going to have to do some arithmetic and the amount may vary from child to child depending on how the number of in-school days. It's been estimated that this will bring $200 million to the state, which with the multiplier means $300 million in much needed economic activity.

That's good news, or at least a silver lining to the pandemic. Still, more needs to be done to encourage the expansion of CEP. And we need to revisit legislation that died the last two years that would require counties to come up with out of school food plans for emergencies and summer vacations. Last year, the bill died just as the pandemic began to hit. One would hope that the need for such legislation would be self evident this year.

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