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Illinois launches summer food assistance program

Gov. JB Pritzker announces the launch of a new summer nutrition program for school-age children during a news conference at Enos Elementary in Springfield.
Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock
Gov. JB Pritzker announces the launch of a new summer nutrition program for school-age children during a news conference at Enos Elementary in Springfield.

The state is launching a new program to provide food assistance during the summer for families with children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school.

Gov. JB Pritzker joined other state officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Thursday to announce that Illinois will take part in the federally funded Summer EBT program, which provides qualifying families with a one-time benefit of $120 per child that can be used to buy groceries during the summer months.

Speaking at a predominantly low-income elementary school in Springfield, Pritzker said it’s important all year long to ensure that children have enough food to eat.

“Food insecurity is absolutely detrimental to a child’s development,” he said. It impacts academic performance, social function, and mental and physical health.”

Pritzker noted the program began as a “stop-gap” measure to address the needs of low-income families with school-age children during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many school buildings were forced to close.

The program proved so successful in helping alleviate child hunger that Congress acted in 2022 to make it permanent. This summer will mark the first under the new, permanent authority.

“Summer EBT is evidence-based, meaning we know it works,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services at USDA, which funds the program. “It’s been tested, piloted, and gone through rigorous research to show that it reduces hunger and increases the intake of nutritious foods (for) the kids who participate.”

The program is open to children who are also eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school. That means they must come from households with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level – $47,767 for a family of three, or $57,720 for a family of four.

According to the most recent state report card from the Illinois State Board of Education, 49 percent of all students in Illinois public schools meet that criteria.

There is no citizenship requirement for the program and Summer EBT is not considered under the public charge rule of U.S. immigration law.

Children will be automatically enrolled if they have been enrolled on or after July 1, 2023, in either the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP; income-eligible Medicaid; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF; or the state’s Youth in Care or foster care system.

Families who do not take part in those programs but who may qualify under the income guidelines can also apply through a school that takes part in the National School Lunch Program.

Qualifying families will receive the money in the form of an electronic benefits transfer, or EBT card, known in Illinois as a Link card. For families already enrolled in the SNAP or TANF programs, the $120 per-child benefit will be loaded onto their existing Link card. Others will receive a new card in the mail from the Illinois Department of Human Services.

According to the state’s Summer EBT website, the 2024 benefits will be distributed in late summer.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Peter Hancock joined the Capitol News Illinois team as a reporter in January 2019.