When COVID-19 caused schools and businesses across the country to close in March, students and their families felt the immediate impact, especially the more than 330,000 Kansas kids (and 20 million nationally) who depend on school meals throughout the day.


Along with rising unemployment as a result of the pandemic, families have been struggling financially to feed their children, who now find themselves at home full time.


Kansans and organizations acted quickly to set up meal pick-up sites, including Summer Food Service Programs. While these sites are making an important difference, these programs don’t fill all food needs.


In some areas, because the need across communities was so significant, meal sites began feeding adults, too. One such community is Iola in Allen County, which used grant funds to offer meals to adults. Two weeks into the program, grant dollars began to run out.


In a national survey by Hunger Free America, more than 35% of parents reported cutting the size of meals or skipping meals for their children between mid-March and mid-April because they did not have enough money to purchase food.


That’s when Congress created the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program, a program that provides school-aged children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch money to buy food on an ATM-like EBT card, similar to how Kansas administers the SNAP food assistance. This money can be used to buy groceries in lieu of school breakfast and/or lunch.


To date, more than 45 states, including Kansas, have been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in the program.


For Kansas families, these benefits have been critical in a time of great need. Becky Osborn of Wichita said: "Pandemic-EBT helped our family by not having to decide which bill to skip in order to put food on the table for my daughter. Because we had this benefit, we were able to keep the internet turned on so she could continue her education virtually."


It is clear this need for expanded access to food for kids and their families is more urgent than ever. New data indicates that over 14 million children experienced food insecurity in June. Systemic racism has caused disparities to be more stark for families and students of color. New Census data reveals nearly 40% of Black and Latinx families with children are struggling to put food on the table.


It doesn’t have to be this way.


Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, whose committee has jurisdiction over food and nutrition issues, can include these provisions in a federal stimulus bill.


• Extend P-EBT through summer and into the next school year to allow eligible children to continue to access benefits should schools close again or operate at reduced hours.


• Expand P-EBT benefits to cover children under 5 years.


• Ensure that no additional laws are needed to extend the program should closures continue into the next school year


• Strengthen program implementation by supporting states and directing USDA to work efficiently with state agencies to administer benefits quickly


With so much at stake for the future of Kansas, keeping our kids healthy, fed and in a safe environment to learn must be our first priority. But if Congress doesn’t act soon, millions of kids could go hungry.


Haley Kottler is the anti-hunger campaign director and Joey Hentzler is the director of advocacy for Kansas Appleseed. Courtney Bollig is the senior associate for government affairs and communications at The Education Trust.