Families, food assistance providers brace for rough summer without Summer EBT

A girl sits by a window and eats a meal out of a plastic container.
Raynata Lockett’s daughter Tateanna Ben, 15, eats a meal her mother prepared for her to take to the Jackie Club of the Boys & Girls Club of Acadiana in Lafayette, La., on Tuesday, February 27, 2024.

As a single mother of four, Raynada Lockett often finds herself struggling to make ends meet. The Army veteran lives on VA disability checks and a little extra income from gigs as a substitute teacher. For the past few years, she has also relied on pandemic-era food assistance to help supplement her grocery budget.

“It was a relief,” Lockett said of the Summer P-EBT program, which last year provided an additional $120 per school-aged child for the months of June and July combined. 

Living on a fixed income, the benefits helped during a time when finding and paying for childcare, increased utility bills and the lack of free school meals hit hard for low-income families.

“You have a mortgage, you have utilities, children always have needs, period,” Locket said. “When you have unexpected bills that come up, it’s hard to prepare for them.”

The Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) Program was created in Spring 2020 to provide funds for families to buy food while schools were closed due to COVID-19. The summer portion of the program extended those benefits to the months when school was not in session and has since been made permanent.

But this year, the new administration of Gov. Jeff Landry decided not to participate in the program, which would have brought in $71 million in federal funds to feed nearly 600,000 children in Louisiana

New Landry-appointed Department of Child and Family Services Secretary David Matlock said the program came with “more strings than long-term solutions” and suggested that families should instead get on “a path to self-sufficiency.” Supporters of the decision argue that it saves the state $3.5 million in administrative costs.

Both the reasoning and the loss of the additional benefits, which will still be dispersed to low-income families in the 35 other states that opted into this year’s program, have baffled food assistance providers.

“I find it hard to fathom that we’re arguing about putting food in front of kids,” said Ben Broussard, spokesperson for Catholic Charities of Acadiana, which provides food assistance through its soup kitchen at St. Joseph Diner and a food bank that distributes groceries to food pantries across Acadiana. “It doesn’t make sense to us.”

Catholic Charities, alongside other providers, is now bracing for a rough summer. According to Broussard, the organization is gearing up for increased fundraising efforts, to make up for the federal dollars through local donations. But, he noted, any funds raised likely won’t come close to the money forgone by the state in its decision not to participate.

Second Harvest, Louisiana’s largest non-governmental provider of food assistance, is also preparing for an increased need during the summer months by staffing up its kitchens and expanding its distribution sites. 

“This is what we do during disasters,” said Second Harvest spokesperson Natasha Curley. “And this is how we’re looking at summer feeding this year: an emergency.”

Outside of the food pantries it supplies, Second Harvest primarily distributes food to children in conjunction with summer camps or other activities hosted by schools, recreation centers and the like. But the reach of those programs is limited, as poor families struggle to come up with the nominal fees or the transportation to get their children to the program sites. 

“These are families that were already making these tough choices year-round,” Curley said. “The summer EBT provided some relief. Not as much as needed, but some. Now that’s no longer available.”

The organization is hoping to expand its capabilities for getting food to children outside of those settings, especially in rural areas where transportation is particularly challenging. Whether such programming can be stood up in time for the summer remains to be seen, said Second Harvest Children’s Program Coordinator Sara Jean Gills.

“Even with the collective effort, you’re going to see a huge gap,” Gills noted.

The impacts of even a short period of increased food insecurity can be permanent, Lafayette pastor John Newman points out.

Newman, who runs New Hope Community of Acadiana, an organization that focuses on combating the effects of adverse childhood experiences, an umbrella term for potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood, said going hungry can leave a permanent mark on a child’s life and hinder his or her chances at success in the future.

“When kids have stress because of not eating, they’re not just hungry, they’re not getting vital nutrients for their brain development and it’s going to actually change their brain’s architecture,” Newman said. “You can’t recover from that. It’s permanent damage that we’re doing to our kids.”

The administration’s decision also runs counter to some of its other stated goals, namely reducing crime, Newman posited. 

“There’s a very tight correlation between hunger and criminality in older kids,” he noted. Several studies have shown that higher food insecurity rates across all age groups were associated with exponentially higher crime rates. 

“If we would just feed them, we wouldn’t have to lock them up in prisons and jails,” Newman said of children and young adults going hungry in Louisiana.

For this year, the ship has sailed, but that doesn’t mean that providers are willing to give up on the additional federal assistance in future years. Pat Van Burkleo, executive director of Feeding Louisiana, which advocates on behalf of providers such as Second Harvest, said his organization is actively looking for legislators to sponsor a bill that would restore the funding necessary to run the program in coming years.

“I’m very hopeful that we’re going to get this done,” he said. “I think we’re going to find someone who cares about kids enough. It’s going to be a hard thing for people to say no to.”