Washington County families could receive extra money to buy food over the summer through the federal Build Back Better Act now being tossed around on Capitol Hill.
The current text of President Joe Biden's signature bill directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a program "for the purpose of providing nutrition assistance through electronic benefits transfer during the summer months for eligible children to ensure continued access to food when school is not in session for the summer."
A similar, federally funded program administered through the Oregon Human Services Department called "Pandemic-EBT" expired in October. It gave families funds for school meals missed during virtual learning.
Local nutrition directors praised the flexibility of the Pandemic-EBT program, as funds arrived on cards in the mail or were loaded onto Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards, allowing families to shop on their own.
"We think about Beaverton School District, we have to drive to get to school. It's not an urban setting, so even if we're offering meals on campus somehow, it was harder for families to access it," Beaverton School District director of nutrition services Charity Ralls said. "This way, families still get those resources no matter what. The other big piece is being able to purchase foods they would like to be eating and not just what we have to offer."
Forest Grove School District nutrition services director Laycee Pickerill said her department offered curbside meals and meal delivery on bus routes, as well as multi-day meal kits, last summer.
"For some students in the district, eating two meals a day at school is where they have access to nutritious well-rounded meals. Without the district's summer meals program, many of those students wouldn't have consistent access until school resumed," Pickerill said. "The district is committed to keep the summer meals program as accessible as possible, and to expand it in all possible ways to close the summer hunger gap."
In Oregon public schools, if 40% of students at a given school are certified for free meals without having to apply for free or reduced meals — such as students already in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, homeless students, students in foster care or those who participate in federal Head Start programs — then the entire school receives free meals under what is called a community eligibility provisions. Students at those schools qualified for the Pandemic-EBT program and would qualify for the proposed summer program in the Build Back Better Act. Students can also qualify based on family income.
Last month, the Oregon Department of Human Services announced it had mistakenly issued $7.8 million in Pandemic-EBT benefits to nearly 6,000 students in at least 26 schools, including Meadow Park Middle School and Oak Hills Elementary School in Beaverton. The error occurred when the department mistook the schools for community eligibility provision schools and sent every student the funds.
Spokesperson Jake Sunderland said families spent over $2.7 million before the state realized the mistake and canceled around $5.1 million off of cards.
While local school officials would like to keep the summer meals program going, the prospects of passage for the Build Back Better Act are murky. The House narrowly passed a version of the legislation in November, but in the Senate — which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaker — Biden will need to convince moderate Democratic senators like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to go along with the legislative package.
On Friday, Dec. 10, a Congressional Budget Office review of the bill requested by Republicans said it would add about $3 trillion to the deficit over the next decade.
Leading Senate Democrats and the Biden administration immediately criticized the CBO score. They argue that estimate doesn't reflect the current version of the bill or the "pay-for" provisions in it.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.