Summer & Afterschool Meal Policy
The summer and afterschool meals programs connect kids with nutritious food when school is out of session.
This section provides background information on the summer meals program, Summer EBT, and the afterschool meals program. It also covers policy opportunities and work done at the federal and state level to improve and expand these programs.
The summer meals programs -- the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and National School Lunch Program's Seamless Summer Option (SSO) -- are federal programs created by Congress. Congress sets the basic structure, rules and funding for the programs. The federal government fully covers the reimbursement funds for meals served to eligible children. The federal government also provides administrative funds to states according to a formula based on federal program expenditures in prior years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the programs at the federal level, issuing regulations and guidance that provide additional detail for implementing the laws set by Congress.
A designated agency administers the programs within each state. SFSP and SSO may be administered by separate agencies within the state.
State legislatures may also pass laws that complement or extend the federal laws and regulations.
For more information on how the summer meals programs work, see our Summer Meals program page.
Congregate and Non-Congregate Service
Traditionally, both SFSP and SSO required what is known as "congregate" meal service: children must come to a meal site and eat each meal together. While guidance eventually allowed children to take one item from their meal home with them, children were generally required to finish their meal on site in order for the program operator to receive federal reimbursement funding. For summer meals served in conjunction with summer school, camp, or other activities, this was not a significant issue. However, many children are at home over the summer break and do not have access to quality programming. With school buses not running over the summer and parents working, many children do not have the ability to access traditional congregate sites. Even when children could access a nearby open site at a park or public pool, rainy weather, extreme heat or safety concerns could close a site temporarily or limit participation. These challenges were amplified in rural areas where community resources and children are spread over further distances with limited transportation options.
While non-congregate service was piloted as part of the same summer demonstration projects that originated Summer EBT, it only became broadly available in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress granted USDA broad waiver authority, and USDA issued waivers for the usual congregate and meal service time restrictions. This flexibility made service models like curbside pick-up and home delivery possible, with many operators serving meals for multiple days at one time.
With these flexibilities set to disappear for summer 2023, Congress took action in December 2023 to authorize a permanent non-congregate summer meal service option. However, unlike during the pandemic when non-congregate was broadly available, Congress only authorized non-congregate service in rural areas without congregate service. Congress allowed USDA to implement non-congregate service in summer 2023 using guidance previously developed for non-congregate demonstration projects and directed USDA to issue an interim final rule on non-congregate service by the end of 2023.
Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (Summer EBT or SEBT) is a newly-authorized entitlement program that provides families with eligible children with a small monthly grocery benefit while school is closed over the summer. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 made Summer EBT a permanent, nationwide program that begins in Summer 2024.
Summer EBT was initially authorized and funded by the 2010 Agriculture Appropriations Act as one of several summer demonstration projects. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversaw the first "proof of concept" grants to five states in the summer of 2011. Summer EBT pilots continued to receive funding through the annual appropriations process each year, growing to $35 million for Fiscal Year 2020. Still, only 12 states and Indian Tribal Organizations (ITOs) were ever included in the Summer EBT pilots.
Beginning in Summer 2021, Pandemic EBT preempted the Summer EBT pilots since Congress authorized Pandemic EBT to extend to the summer as long as the COVID-19 public health emergency remained in effect at any point in the preceding school year. This made Pandemic EBT available nationwide during summer 2021 and 2022 to all students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, all students enrolled in schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) or other special reimbursement provision, and children under age six in households participating in SNAP as long as their state had an approved P-EBT plan on file with USDA.
With the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act at the end of 2022, Congress made several changes to Pandemic EBT for summer 2023 in addition to setting an initial framework for Summer EBT. For more details on how Pandemic EBT works in summer 2023, see our Fast Facts.
The permanent Summer EBT program that begins in 2024 will also have key differences from Pandemic EBT: the benefit will be $40 per child per month (adjusted for inflation each year after 2024), and the benefit will not be automatically extended to all students enrolled in CEP schools. Additionally, many elements of the permanent Summer EBT program have yet to be decided since the USDA has until the end of 2023 to issue interim final regulations.
Afterschool Meals typically refers to the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) At-Risk Afterschool Meals component, which provides federal reimbursement funds for no-cost meals and/or snacks served to children at sites located in areas where more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Unlike summer meals sites, where programming is optional, afterschool meals sites must provide some kind of educational or enrichment activity, though it can be informal, and enrollment is not required. There is also an option available to serve afterschool snacks through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
Similar to the other child nutrition programs, Congress sets the basic rules for the afterschool meals programs, and the USDA administers and oversees them at the federal level. A designated agency in each state oversees implementation, working with the non-profit organizations and school food authorities that administer the program at eligible sites.
For more on how afterschool meals programs work, please see our afterschool meals program page.
Although Congress has already made dramatic strides towards closing the summer meal gap with the permanent authorization of Summer EBT and a non-congregate summer meals option for rural communities, there are still several areas where improvements are needed.
Expand the Non-Congregate Option for Summer Meals
While the traditional summer meals programs were a particular challenge in rural communities, there are still barriers to providing congregate service non-rural communities, including weather (since many summer meals sites are outdoors), safety, transportation, and lack of high-quality and age-appropriate programming. Congress is needed to take further action in expanding non-congregate service beyond rural communities as authorized in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023.
Streamline Summer and Afterschool Meals
Administrative challenges remain a barrier to the implementation of both summer and afterschool meals. USDA has taken steps to streamline these programs, but further action from Congress is needed to integrate these programs and provide a more seamless experience for the organizations and kids operating year-round.
Most legislative changes to the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), National School Lunch Program (NSLP -- including the Seamless Summer Option and afterschool snacks), and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP -- including At-Risk Afterschool Meals) are made through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) process. For more information on how the CNR process works and its current status, please see the CNR section within the Federal Policy & Advocacy webpage.
Congress may pass laws affecting the summer and afterschool meals programs outside of the CNR process if needed, though. Emergency COVID-19 relief legislation included numerous measures relating to these programs, and the Keep Kids Fed Act passed in June 2022 temporarily extended USDA's authority to issue COVID-19 waivers and provided a one-year increase to school, afterschool, and child care meal reimbursement rates.
Additionally, Congress may include policy changes within appropriations bills, such as the numerous changes included within the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023. Appropriations bills also include funding for related programs that do not have permanent authorization or funding. For example, Summer EBT pilots were funded for years through annual appropriations bills.
States can take legislative action to improve access to the summer nutrition programs. States can allocate funding to encourage site expansion and support programming, require participation in high-need areas and make changes to enhance administrative efficiencies.
Specific state policy changes to the summer nutrition programs have included:
- Requiring schools to conduct outreach to families
- Requiring schools to offer summer meals programs
- Providing waivers to streamline administrative processes
- Encouraging data sharing between state agencies and non-profit partners
- Expanding the use of census data for area eligibility determinations
State legislation can increase access to and support for afterschool meals. States can allocate funding to encourage site expansion and support programming, require participation in high-need areas and make changes to enhance administrative efficiencies.
Specific state policy changes to afterschool meal programs has included:
- Streamlining administrative processes for School Food Authorities
- Encouraging data-sharing between state agencies and nonprofit partners
- Streamlining participation between the Summer Food Service Program and afterschool meal programs
- Providing grants to fund afterschool programming