Agriculture Health

The Biden administration announced Monday the expansion of a nutrition program, born amid the start of the pandemic, that could provide more food to nearly 2 million children throughout Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia this summer. 

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, program started last March to provide money to low-income families whose children were missing meals normally received at school, programs that were disrupted by the pandemic. Funds are loaded onto a card for individual families to purchase food for their children. The program is now being expanded through the summer, providing food dollars for families alongside the existing food distribution programs run by districts. 

Chrissy Musser is the food service director for more than 1,500 students at Meigs Local School District in southeastern Ohio, one of many low-income districts in the Ohio Valley where all students are qualified to receive free breakfast and lunch. Musser said this expansion could be a major benefit for her students, helping reach some students who miss out on summer food distributions. 

“Meigs County is one of the poorest counties in Ohio. I literally see on a daily basis the food insecurity issues that our families face,” she said. “If there’s an opportunity for them to have a little bit extra stability, then I absolutely have to advocate for that.”

Musser added transportation to physically get food to children is also a major issue in Appalachian Ohio, as some families may be geographically isolated or lack the transportation to receive food. 

“If their basic survival needs aren’t met, then they can’t learn. Period.” Musser said. “If we can make sure that we’ve met those needs, and certainly hunger is a big one, then they’ve got the building blocks they need, to do what they have to do in school. So, it’s kind of a big deal.”

The P-EBT expansion could also spur the local economy, according to one analyst. The Department of Agriculture estimates Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia combined will receive more than $710 million through the expansion. Jessica Klein, a policy associate with the left-leaning think tank Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the money freed up by family food funding could potentially be spent on other items and bills.

“Families use that money at a local grocery store chain, in convenience stores near their homes. So it really does help with the local economy,” Klein said. 

Klein said those with P-EBT benefits can also use them at their local farmer’s markets in Kentucky, allowing for more access to local, fresh produce and directly benefiting local farmers. 

Chris Derico, the child nutrition director for Harrison County Schools in West Virginia and incoming vice president of the national School Nutrition Association, said there may be some uncertainty about how the amount of P-EBT benefits will be determined, but his district is supportive of efforts to make sure children have the nutrition they need. 

“If we’re all worried about our stomachs and how we’re feeling, we’re not gonna be paying attention to what’s going on in the classroom. So, it’s the foundation to get the learning process started,” Derico said.