In Pennsylvania, officials had planned to give out $128 per student to some 330,000 low-income students. But there simply isn’t time to do so under USDA’s new directive, officials told POLITICO.
“It’s just hard to understand why the federal government is doing what it’s doing,” said Teresa Miller, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. “This is the latest in a series of really frustrating decisions — at every turn recently they have been very keen on returning everything back to normal. But we all know the world is not back to normal.”
Pennsylvania intended to get benefits to the students in low-income schools that were doing virtual-only learning, leaving off hybrid-option schools, because officials said they didn’t have the time or the data to reach all students before the program lapsed.
The USDA’s change in policy means they are not able to issue any Pandemic-EBT benefits to students this month.
The multiple school district setups — all virtual, all in-person or hybrid of the two — has made the program much more complicated than it was when the vast majority of schools were shut down.
At hybrid schools — where students are doing some combination of virtual and in-person instruction — it’s extremely complicated to get data on each individual student’s schedule as the school year started: Should one student receive P-EBT benefits to replace three days of missed meals, or two? Another student may be learning remotely all five days. A single family with multiple children might have students in all different setups.
Many school districts also don’t know how many students qualify for free and reduced lunch until a few weeks into the school year after families fill out necessary paperwork.
Once school districts have the lists of eligible students, that information has to be transferred over to the state agencies that administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, still known to many as food stamps.
Those agencies then determine which students at different schools are in the same households. Then, they check to see if the families are already on SNAP. If they are on the program, the benefits can be directly loaded on their EBT card. If they’re not, the state has to mail a new EBT card to the household.
Over the spring and summer, some states were issuing hundreds of thousands of new cards to households that had never before used a government EBT card.
When Congress created Pandemic-EBT in the first major coronavirus stimulus package in March, lawmakers did not foresee how long the current crisis would last. They authorized the program to go through the end of the government fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
But schools are still widely disrupted. Millions of kids are not going to get the meals they normally would at school, and childhood food insecurity rates are extremely high.
“We need an ‘all of the above’ strategy,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
In July, Bauer and a team of researchers found that P-EBT benefits significantly reduced the number of children struggling to get access to enough food.
Using Census Bureau data, the researchers could see that the week after P-EBT benefits were issued in a particular state, the rate of children not getting enough to eat dropped by 30 percent. The effect started to wear off by the second week.
The program’s benefits, targeted at families with school-age children, were used quickly when they were doled out over the spring and summer, Bauer noted.
When a low-income family gets help from SNAP each month, those benefits often last a couple of weeks, but when researchers looked at P-EBT they noticed that families spent the money almost immediately.
“That suggests to me that this was a pretty important infusion of cash,” said Bauer.
With the program now set to expire in less than two weeks, anti-hunger advocates are trying to ramp up pressure on Congress to extend the program through the end of the school year. With stimulus talks seemingly dead for now, advocates are asking lawmakers to include an extension of P-EBT in any short term spending package.
“Congress needs to act,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out of school programs at the Food Research & Action Center. “We need to make sure the benefits are available for September, but it’s going to be a really long school year for families if their children are learning remotely.”