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Abt Conversations: Implementing Summer EBT—Tips from the Chickasaw Nation

October 16, 2023

Summer EBT was recently authorized as a federally funded, national nutritional program for school-aged children. It’s a difficult program to implement and sustain, but it’s vital to the more than 20 million children who rely on it to support their nutrition when school isn’t in session. In this podcast, Abt’s René Nutter talks with Tyra Shackleford, Chickasaw Nation’s Summer EBT Manager, about what it takes for a successful Summer EBT implementation.

Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Summer EBT was recently authorized as a federally funded national nutritional program for school-aged children. States, territories, and Indian tribal organizations will begin implementing the permanent program during the summer of 2024. But it's a difficult program to implement and sustain, and it's vital to the more than 20 million children who rely on it to support their nutrition—their health and wellbeing—during months when school isn't in session.

For 10 years, Abt has evaluated the Summer EBT pilot program, with the most recent leg of the study led by Abt's René Nutter. Understanding that communities require tailored, localized solutions, we thought we'd look at the top three challenges Abt saw in the evaluation and talk with Tyra Shackleford, Chickasaw Nation's Summer EBT Administrator, so we can share her experience and perspective on what it takes for a successful Summer EBT implementation. Welcome, Tyra. And hello, René.

Tyra Shackleford: Hello.

René Nutter: Hello.

Eric: So, I'm going to start with you, René: Over the course of the evaluation, what did you see when it came to startup costs and implementations of Summer EBT programs?

René: So, as you mentioned, Eric, the pilots have been in existence for a decade. And regardless of where, or the size of the grant, what we saw was this very steep incline in costs. So, grantees needed to establish EBT processors, coding, IT systems, staffing, all the things that go into recruiting, hiring, and getting staff on board. So, we saw these really steep kind of inclines. And then, after two or three years, we saw that leveled out. And it didn't matter what part of the country, again, the size, it was just kind of super steep, and then leveled off. And it didn't matter if it was a SNAP-based program or a WIC-based program, you still have these startup costs.

Eric: So, Tyra, how does that dovetail with what you saw? What were your experiences when you started your implementation?

Tyra: Yeah, our implementation costs were primarily in technology and staffing, outreach to schools, and cost per case fees. Of course, the technology build is the implementation part, and some of those other costs are more ongoing. But it did help us to leverage the existing systems our WIC has, and do different coding to be able to use those for Summer EBT.

One thing that I feel like was kind of a barrier, and we're experiencing it again while we're standing up our permanent program, and it's once again related to technology development: During the demonstrations, FNS—Food and Nutrition Services—provided a one-year grant most of the time. There was one cycle where we had a three-year grant. But when you have a one-year funding, you don't have time for a good technology build. You can build something, it's just not necessarily going to be everything that you need it to be. We've been operating piecemealed systems for 10 years now, and now that it's a permanent program, we're excited to create a system that's going to work perfect for us.

Eric: So, okay, you're talking about some struggles. René, I don't know if you wanted to follow up on that.

René: I don't think that Chickasaw Nation's experience was unique, in that you're hurrying up, you're trying to get a band-aid system together, and getting that so that it's operational over time. I could definitely see where other grantees would've struggled with that as well.

Tyra: Yeah. And I would add to you, this is not related to the cost per se, but it is a struggle: it's just really identifying the amount of staffing that you need. And then the first few years that we operated Summer EBT, we were cost allocating staff, and it about killed them. We had staff in their pajamas at home, swiping cards and issuing benefits, just so we could get the benefits out on the street in time. So considering adequate staffing for your needs is something I suggest any program considers really.

Eric: Thank you. René mentioned startup costs, but then reaching that steady state. Tyra, do you feel like you've reached that steady state now? If so, what do you think got you there?

Tyra: For us, I would say we're getting close to reaching that steady state. We completed an RFP earlier this year for a technology build to implement in ‘24. Some of the pieces we're really lucky that we were able to implement in ‘23, but some of the pieces are taking longer to build, and that's fine. Once we have that build, though, I feel like we are golden. The experience that we've had over the years, our costs remain consistent, or the types of expenses we have remain consistent. That piece that has changed from year to year has been putting the band-aid on the technology, and those sorts of things.

Eric: Great. Well, so then another question we had was, René, I know that you saw in the pilot there were varying degrees of participation each year. What were some of the highlights that you saw among the pilot grantees?

René: When it came to participation, I think the biggest facilitator was ease in access, and knowledge about access. So, you got the card and some folks, if they go use the card and get turned away, or didn't know exactly what they could or couldn't buy, would get frustrated and then never take the card back to the grocery store.

But kind of either front loading that, "Hey, this is your card, this is how it works. These are the items that you can purchase with your EBT card," and knowing that ahead of time. Or, and I know that Chickasaw Nation did this, is working with retailers so that they can help customers when they come in, and knowing exactly what items are applicable and reimbursable versus what aren't. And I think even with whether it's a WIC-based program like Chickasaw Nation, or if it's a SNAP-based program like the states will have, you're still going to have this little bit of a learning curve in getting the information front loaded, and letting families know, "This is how you use a card, and this is what you can purchase with that card" will help them so they don't get embarrassed in the checkout line, and they keep using their benefits.

Eric: Thanks. Tyra, I see a lot of head nodding here. You want to talk about some of what René mentioned and how you increased participation?

Tyra: Well, I one hundred percent agree with what René is saying, and that is a very, very important piece. And we tried a few different strategies over the years, just to help train our participants, because a lot of them were not familiar with the program, or familiar with our food package since we're operating a WIC-type model. One interesting thing we did when we expanded into Choctaw Nation, because we knew all of those students and families were brand new to the program, is we contracted some staff to go to the grocery stores, and just be there and be available to help with shopping.

We called them shopping assistants. We had a schedule, and we would text out to clients when the shopping assistant was at a particular store, so they could take advantage of them. And we had a lot of really good feedback that first year. We did it again the second year, but I don't think it was as needed, we had a lot more participants familiar with the program. Some other things that I would add for increasing participation and redemptions, we've tried a lot of different strategies. And René may disagree with me, I don't know. I feel like the act of consent process Chickasaw Nation did during the demonstrations, meaning families had to apply first, and then we would determine if they were eligible and issue benefits. I feel like we saw higher redemption rates in an active consent model than we did in a passive consent model.

René: I can offer a couple clarifying things here. With participation, whether it was active or passive, if you looked at the eligible children as a whole, rarely did any site get past 50 percent participation. Whether it was active or passive. And I think it goes back, one of the things... And my understanding with the Summer EBT when it comes to states, ITOs, of course they can develop their own. But with states, it will be kind of a hybrid. So if you qualify for free or reduced price lunches, you automatically qualify for Summer EBT, kind of pre-qualified. And the biggest differentiator that we saw with youth, is a correct address.

Tyra: Yes, I would agree with that.

René: When we talked with people like, "Hey, you were eligible." And some who even completed the application, "How come you never used any of your benefits?" A lot of times it was that the correct address wasn't on file. So completing that application kind of helped facilitate to make sure you had the correct address that households were aware the card was coming, so they kind of looked out for it. I think we also found, with some non-participants, is they got this mailer, and people can be a little reluctant like, "Is this real? Not real?" And if they didn't know anything about it, sometimes it got chucked in the garbage and didn't get used. So that outreach, and folks knowing, and I think with the active consent filling out the application, making sure that address is correct is a big differentiator as well.

Tyra: Yes, that is definitely one thing that we were very grateful for and noticed, we had less returned mailed than some others. We also implemented a lot of outreach, and we had a communications plan each year that I work with our outreach coordinator on, to plan out. And I think that helps us also with participation and redemptions. We do text messages, email, shopper app, push notifications, and printed materials, and we do a participant survey at the end of the season every year. And one of the questions we ask is, "What means of communication do you prefer?" Or, "What types of text messages do you prefer receiving?" and that sort of thing. And it's very interesting, the diverse responses that we get.

Only about half of our participants will utilize our shopper app, and half of them do not. And so we just really try to think through our communications plan to meet the individual needs of all of our clients, and utilize a lot of different ways to communicate with our clients. One thing that our clients really, really love is our benefit balance text messages; we do those as close to the 1st and the 15th of the month as possible when benefits are active. And it's a good reminder for families, "Hey, you got benefits, you can go use them." And I even did some analysis the first year we implemented those, and we saw peaks in trips to the store the day of and the three days after we send a benefit balance text message, and then the trend kind of declines back down to normal. But when we send those, it does prompt people to go to the store. And so that's another strategy that we've used.

Eric: I was going to ask if there was one that worked particularly well. I heard you say that you sort of needed several to reach everybody, but that that text message approach worked. René, what did you see, any clear cut winners above and beyond what Tyra just described that you saw?

René: Well, like what Tyra was saying, in the focus groups, people did say, "Oh, I really appreciated the text messages, because it reminds me, oh, I need to go to the store." The other thing that we saw in the redemption data, is we could tell when a text message went out because the increase in redemptions sharply increased over that part of the month. So they're definitely effective. And we did hear from participants that they liked receiving them, because it was a reminder, like, "Oh, I need to get to the store." And depending on how your Summer EBT program is set up, you might have benefits that expire at the end of the month, or you may have some that roll over into the next month. And if you had some that expired at the end of the month, you absolutely wanted to make sure that you got to the store to redeem those. The other thing, Tyra, didn't you all do radio early in the pilots? Was that effective?

Tyra: We tried local radio stations in our Summer EBT service area. The Chickasaw Nation has a local radio station, and I feel like that reached several people. But I don't feel like some of the other local radio stations in Chickasaw Nation area reached as many people. However, in Choctaw Nation, they did reach a lot of people. I have one counterpart that I work with closely at Choctaw Nation to help with outreach activities, and she had gotten all of the local radio stations to do a PSA quite frequently during our application period. And I do feel like that had a big impact.

You asked, Eric, some of the other strategies or tools that we've used, outside of radio and text message I would say email is somewhat effective, it really depends on the clients. Our WIC shopper app, like I said, about half of our clients use that, but there are so many good tools in there that they love. They can scan the barcode of an item at the grocery store and know if it's going to be an approved item or not before they even get to the register, that's one thing they love. But they also have some nutrition education, some recipe ideas, there's different things in our app that we see our clients using. And then I mentioned those shopping assistants that we've had for a few years.

Eric: That sounds like a pretty good array. René, I know you were interested in branding …

René: In the focus group... So I'm going to give kudos to Chickasaw Nation, and Tyra and her team, because we did hear, "Oh, if I saw that logo, I knew it was Summer EBT." And we did something very similar with the evaluation, in that if you saw the sun, it was a rising sun, you knew that it was part of the Summer EBT pilot demonstration, et cetera. And Chickasaw Nation's was so colorful that, "Oh, I know exactly what that is." And I think that states and ITOs could probably take a note out of that book and like, "Hey, we need to really think about branding this, because it's not SNAP, it's not WIC. It's entirely different, and it's valid during this period of time." So you want to make sure that families take advantage of it. And that's one way to, "Oh, this is Summer EBT."

Tyra: I think the branding really helps at the grocery stores too, for the cashiers to recognize, "Oh, I need to hit the WIC button on this." Or, "I need to hit this button for this." And a lot of our grocery stores, especially in our state, are serving multiple programs in the same area, so they need to be able to recognize those various different cards.

René: Because they're not always going to be co-loaded.

Tyra: Yeah.

Eric: So now that Summer EBT has been permanently authorized, Tyra, knowing what you know now, you've already given a lot of advice in the course of this conversation. But what haven't you said yet that you think people should know?

Tyra: Well, I'm going to say this again, because adequate staffing was a lesson that was hard learned. And then of course, technology systems that can meet your needs. I would want to share one lesson learned from observing the rollout of pandemic EBT in our state, and René kind of touched on this earlier, is creating awareness of the program before you just mail out benefits. We experienced... And I think some of the demonstrations experienced this too in the early years but, specifically, when pandemic EBT rolled out in Oklahoma, we experienced a lot of calls from clients asking us questions, because they didn't know anything about the program. They just saw EBT on the card, and they thought they could call us because we're Summer EBT. But they didn't know what they had, they didn't know why they had it, they didn't know how much they had. So communication in the beginning is extremely important.

Eric: Great. René, anything that you saw in the broader trends that you want to use to buttress what Tyra is saying or complement?

René: Very similar, in that getting the knowledge out so people know, "Hey, this is for me, I should use it." I also think, I don't know if you saw it as much, Tyra, in your area, but we did see in the broader pilot area, is the importance of schools. And schools letting families know that they had to complete an application. Or the importance in this case coming up with states, is completing that free or reduced price lunch if you have to, because that's what's going to qualify you.

Or if something changed in your family situation, and you need to update those things, making sure that you update your address, update what's going on with your family. And touching on that pandemic EBT, what we saw is you would think that use would've sharply increased during pandemic, especially when the EBT benefits were put out. But we didn't see that, and it really was because families didn't know. People didn't know, “What is this card?” and didn't necessarily trust it. So, again, that communication piece, and reaching out ahead of time, and not just sending all these out in May and expecting, "Oh, people are just going to see. Oh, this is great, this is benefits." People are a little more circumspect, so letting them know, "Yep, you qualify, and please use these benefits."

Tyra: I think another thing, too, that's important to think about is the framing around the messaging. We had clients that would, "Oh, I don't want to use it, because I want someone else to have it." We heard that a lot over the years. And if you're thinking about something like that in your messaging, then you can let people know this is for everyone, and they don't have to have that concern, "If I use this, someone else who needs it more won't have it." Yeah, just being thoughtful in your messaging.

Eric: Speaking of communication, this is a great opportunity for us, Tyra, to get your insights. So thank you, I'm sure a lot of people listening are going to be grateful to hear what you went through and have learned. And René, what you have learned. And hopefully next summer everyone will be up and running. Thank you both.

Tyra: Thanks y'all, appreciate you!

René: Thank you.

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