April 10, 2024

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched Summer EBT in 2011 as a demonstration project to test the impact of providing summer grocery benefits through an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card to families with low incomes with school-age children. In its first year, the program provided 12,500 families from low-income households with children a debit card with a fixed dollar amount to purchase groceries during the summer months.

Congress continued to invest additional resources in Summer EBT through the annual appropriations process, and over the next 11 years, 10 states and three Indian Tribal Organizations (ITOs) took part in these demonstrations.

In 2016, USDA released its first report evaluating the demonstration projects’ impact from 2011 to 2014, which found that Summer EBT:

  • reduced food insecurity, including the most severe type of food insecurity (very low food security) by one-third, and food insecurity by one-fifth;
  • improved nutrition by providing families with the resources to purchase more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and
  • had high rates of participation, with more than 75 percent of participating households redeeming some or all of their benefits. (However, participants utilizing the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) model used less of their benefits than those utilizing a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) model.)

In early March 2024, USDA released their final two reports on the Summer EBT demonstration projects. The reports evaluated the last seven years of the program: the first report covered 2015 to 2018, and the second covered 2019 to 2022. These reports differed from the previous evaluations of the demonstration projects in that they did not include an experimental design to evaluate the impact of the Summer EBT benefit. Instead, these reports evaluated the implementation and administration of the grants and examined patterns in household usage.

These reports found that parents and caregivers appreciated Summer EBT and saw the program as a critical resource that helped fill nutritional gaps. They felt the program provided flexibility in where they could purchase food and allowed families to purchase more nutritious foods.

Report Recommendations for Future Program Implementation

These evaluations also included the following recommendations for future program implementation that can help states successfully implement the permanent Summer EBT Program:

  • Diversify outreach techniques. The evaluation found that there was a lack of awareness about the program and how to access it. It recommended that states use a variety of communication methods to reach families (newspapers, websites, press releases, radio announcements, social media, etc.) and work with schools to share information with families. Additionally, states should remind families to redeem their benefits through robo-text and robocalls.
  • Use a year-round approach to staffing. Administering agencies reported challenges with hiring and retaining staff from year to year. The new permanent program allows states to create year-round, full-time positions to implement the program, which the evaluation suggested would help mitigate these staffing challenges.
  • Centralize data systems. Agencies reported challenges in identifying eligible children and reconciling conflicting eligibility information from multiple data sources. The evaluation recommended compiling all household information from multiple data sources into one database, which eliminates the need to exchange student lists. A statewide Summer EBT database is required beginning in 2025.
  • Establish statewide/ITO-wide applications. Projects that relied solely on an application process issued significantly fewer benefits to eligible children than those that automatically issued benefits. The evaluation also reported that when applications are necessary, collecting only the required information from families to determine program eligibility through a centralized application system allows for more streamlined data processing and issuance. This will be a requirement for states and ITOs implementing Summer EBT beginning in 2025.
  • Provide flexibility in distributing benefits. A significant amount of benefit dollars were never redeemed in the demonstration programs (30.3 percent during the 2015 to 2018 demonstration projects). This was the result of how benefits were drawn down for families already on SNAP and the rollover of food packages for WIC. The evaluation recommended that in situations where states are co-loading benefits on SNAP cards, Summer EBT benefits should be drawn down first. For WIC, benefits should be allowed to roll over from month to month during the summer to give families more time to use their benefits.

Summer EBT offers an exciting opportunity to reduce summer hunger.  It is vital that these lessons learned from the program demonstration projects are used to shape and strengthen the permanent Summer EBT Program in 2024 and beyond.