More than most people, Tikki Brown, Minnesota Department of Human Services assistant commissioner for children and family services, understands the importance of expanding food aid to the state’s youngest residents.
“My family experienced some poverty when I was younger,” she said. “We were on food stamps, what it was called back then, and needed to go to the food shelf. I learned at a very early age the importance of helping programs and how they were designed to help people.”
Brown’s personal history has made her a serious booster for food-aid programs for low-income families like Minnesota’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). So this spring, when the federal government extended a monthly food benefit of $75 to children age 5 and younger through its Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, she was all in.
“It is really a great program,” Brown said. “We know that there are so many people in our state who need food help.” This benefits extension, she continued, “is an acknowledgement that there are younger children in a household who can utilize benefits that support a family’s income.”
The new P-EBT benefit is available to some 81,000 Minnesota children age 5 and younger who have been enrolled in SNAP, the Minnesota Family Investment Program or Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families since Oct. 1, 2020. Monthly benefits are transferred directly into an EBT card that looks like a credit card, so parents or guardians can purchase food for the children in their care. The program acts as a supplement to other food aid for Minnesota children, including the free and reduced lunch program available in schools.
The generic-looking EBT card helps families feel they won’t be singled out for needing government food assistance. Brown said: “There’s been a strong element of shame in accepting food benefits. There’s been efforts to reduce that shame by issuing a card that looks like everybody else’s credit cards. That’s been significant.”
During the pandemic, an effort was also made to make online grocery shopping possible for families on P-EBT, Brown said. “People can use their benefits to purchase food online from Aldi, Walmart and Amazon. It has been super-helpful.”
The pandemic has put economic pressure on many families, causing illness, hospitalizations and job loss that can make it hard to afford basic necessities. Access to plentiful, healthy food is key to physical development in children: This new benefit, which became available to families in late May, will be a great support, Brown said, explaining that during the pandemic, SNAP participation rose by 25 percent.
“That’s a signal that many families are struggling,” she said.
While $75 a month may seem like a drop in the bucket for a struggling family, Brown explained that it helps to put the payment in context with the reality of life on food benefits.
“The average benefit for families on SNAP is $110 a month,” she said. “An extra $75 a month is quite substantial in terms of expanding their food reach.”
Expanding food reach is an important part of bolstering the healthy development of all of the state’s children, said Ellie Lucas, executive director of Hunger Impact Partners, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to nutritious food for Minnesota children.
“Any time you can put money in the hands of the families that are trying to feed their kids is huge,” she said. Easy access to healthy food is central to the overall health of children, she continued, especially for the very youngest: “The first 1,000 days of life is so critical in terms of growth and brain function. Nutrition is an integral part of that.”
Children who grow up hungry experience a range of woes, Lucas continued, including delayed development, poor attachment and learning difficulties in the first years of life: “They are more likely to require hospitalization, are at higher risk for chronic health conditions like anemia and asthma and oral health problems. They are twice as likely to repeat a grade in school, have lower math and reading scores, and are three times as likely to be suspended from school.”
The $75 monthly P-EBT benefit will go a long way toward improving a child’s nutrition and development, she added: “Anything will help.”
Rob Williams, president and founder of Every Meal, a nonprofit focused on filling food gaps during times when children aren’t able to access free and reduced school meal programs, said that having access to “food that is nutritious, delicious and culturally relevant,” is vitally important. Kids who lack access to healthy food, he said, “suffer emotionally, behaviorally, academically, socially — even with their self-esteem.”
The P-EBT benefit’s flexibility makes it easier for families to purchase the foods that they know their children will eat, Williams added.
“It’s a big opportunity for the families to buy the food that they want that makes sense for their kids. I have a 4-year-old: She doesn’t eat everything. Being able to buy things that she’ll consume that are also healthy — that’s important for her health, and for my peace of mind.”
Need rose during pandemic
The COVID pandemic has significantly increased the number of hungry children in Minnesota, Lucas said.
Pre-COVID, she explained, about 500,000 Minnesota children regularly faced food insecurity and hunger. “Post-COVID, that number is now closer to 612,000 kids in hunger. We have so many more children eligible for food support in this state than we did before.”
There are a number of reasons for this increase, but one of factors that contributed to the rise in hungry children is school closures. Many low-income families rely on school meals as a major source of nutrition for their children. When the state’s schools abruptly shut down in March 2020, schools scrambled to distribute meals to children who were now isolated in their homes.
Before COVID, Lucas said, “It felt like our strategies were working really well.” Then the pandemic made it all-too-clear, she said, that, “that for many kids, schools have become meal centers. When the schools closed, suddenly these kids had nowhere to get food.”
School-lunch delivery programs quickly popped up, helping to keep kids from going hungry, Brown said, and the federally issued P-EBT program tried to fill in the remaining gaps.
“We were able to issue a one-time benefit when the pandemic began during the last school year,” she said. For many families, the statewide school shutdown caused a lot of anxiety. “Thankfully, we were able to issue that added benefit to families who were receiving free and reduced school lunch.”
The P-EBT benefit was extended this school year, even as more schools returned to in-person or hybrid learning. “Sometimes, in some districts, if they had a hybrid situation in their schools, the cafeterias were not open,” Brown said. “This provided a helpful benefit directly to parents to help pay for their children’s food.”
This further expansion of the program acknowledges that children not old enough to go to school also struggle with hunger, Brown added. “In a family, you will have kids of all age ranges, some in school and some that aren’t. These benefits have been helpful in paying for the additional costs that families are bearing.”
Williams said that Every Meal has expanded its Weekend Food program, where two days’ worth of food is distributed into the backpacks of children in 37 Minnesota school districts, to younger kids enrolled in early-access preschool programs like Head Start.
This weekly distribution to preschool programs, Williams said, “targets those 5 and under kiddos. It is a significant time for them that hits their body and brain development, helps them learn how to learn and how to grow socially.”
He said that the P-EBT program is a perfect benefit for young children who aren’t enrolled in day care or preschool programs that provide daily meals. “These kids might not have access to the free and reduced meal programs that are one of the main supports for kids facing food insecurity,” he said. Having an extra $75 per child per month per eligible child could really help a struggling family out.
“The more funding the better. We want families to have more options to be able to buy more fresh produce, to be able to get their kids the food that will help them grow and thrive.”
‘There when people need it’
Brown sees benefits like P-EBT as an important lifeline for families, an essential service that any humane, forward-thinking government should provide for its citizens.
“Sometimes people need help,” she said. “It is never the children’s fault. This program is there when people need it.”
Brown’s own family made it through tough economic times thanks to food assistance, and she’ll never forget that fact. “We needed help for a little while. As my mother was able to get back on her feet, we didn’t need it anymore. But at the time, it helped our family quite a bit.”
Her personal history helped shape her career. While she at first considered becoming a psychologist, she eventually turned to public service.
“I think for me, knowing what it felt like to be on the other side has helped me to be a better employee in terms of remembering and keeping the people at the forefront and knowing what they are going through,” Brown said. “In my particular situation I am able to have greater understanding and empathy.”
At work, Brown said she tries to focus on supporting children and families, on helping all of the state’s children get the resources they need to live healthy lives. She believes that it is the duty of her department to aid the community’s youngest and most vulnerable.
At DHS, she said, “We’ve been trying to attack child poverty.” Statewide, despite the serious economic downturn, she added, “We are seeing declines in child poverty as a whole. We attribute that to extra assistance that the government has been able to provide.”