Low-income families wait for billions of dollars in food aid as children go hungry

5 million doses. Faded away. All because a plant accidentally mixed up ingredients. Sarah Owermohle from POLITICO watches how such a big mistake happened.

“The Biden administration has taken a significant number of steps in a relatively short period of time,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview last month when asked about the delay.

The secretary said he was aggressively addressing state officials about the aid. “I called on the governors of every state and territory, including those who have not yet applied, to encourage them to do so. We are leaving no stone unturned, ”he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Vilsack noted that the administration had expanded nutrition assistance in several ways since January, including overseeing a general 15% increase in food stamp benefits authorized by Congress in December.

Last week, the USDA reversed the Trump administration’s policy to open up an additional $ 1 billion per month in emergency supplemental nutrition assistance payments to millions of the lowest-income households that do not ‘had previously seen no increase in aid during the crisis.

P-EBT, which affects many families who do not qualify for SNAP, got off to a very slow start under the Trump administration and was already late when Biden took office.

The current administration has accelerated the process and increased the benefits owed to each household. But large swathes of the country are still late. Many states have been slow to submit their distribution plans to the USDA, which must first approve them.

The department has approved 30 states along with Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, to distribute aid to school-aged children. Some of the more populous states like California and New York have yet to be approved, leaving millions of low-income families waiting for payments not knowing when they might receive them.

Only six states and the District of Columbia have been approved to provide P-EBT benefits to children under 6, who became eligible for the program in September.

The P-EBT was designed by Congress as a lifeline for low-income families at the onset of the crisis, when no one knew how long schools would be closed, but there were already many concerns over the way to feed the nearly 30-year-olds. million children who usually eat at least one meal in school each day.

Parents of eligible children would receive around $ 240 to $ 450 per child per month on an EBT card, which works like a debit card that can only be used to purchase groceries.

In the spring, the program, while brand new, was relatively straightforward to administer. Virtually all of the schools were closed, so if a child was entitled to free or discounted meals, the family qualified for P-EBT. Schools had addresses for each student. They shared the data with state agencies who typically distribute SNAP benefits.

It got much more complicated when some schools started reopening in August and September.

The Trump administration spent months thinking about how best to ensure that aid only went to children who were in a hybrid or fully virtual school. It turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

School schedules are controlled locally, and many districts conduct in-person and virtual or hybrid schedules, or all three, meaning that eligibility tracking would have to be done individually, which states lack the capacity to do. to do.

In some cases, education officials had to manually update huge Excel spreadsheets to get them in formats other state agencies could use.

The Biden administration made implementation much simpler for states for school-aged children, and also quickly sought to understand how states can expand the program to reach low-income, out-of-school children under the age of 6 years old, who didn’t. qualify until Congress expands eligibility in September to help shut down child care.

California, one of the largest states in terms of scale, has yet to be approved by the USDA. The state submitted a plan. New York, another very large state in terms of population, was also not approved. The New York State Office of Temporary Assistance and Disability Assistance did not respond to a press request to see if it had submitted a plan.

Other large states have also been slow to establish themselves. Texas got its plan approved on March 22. It owes families benefits until August and plans to start issuing benefits at the end of May. Low-income Texas households owe $ 1.9 billion in benefits for the school year that ends in June. In Florida, these families owe $ 1.2 billion for the year.

The program serves many children in households who might earn a little too much to qualify for other forms of assistance, like SNAP, which is known by many as food stamps, even as Washington increased its SNAP spending by roughly 50%.

The benefit was a good surprise for these families. Before the pandemic, Jill, a single mother of two in Arkansas who works two part-time jobs, who requested that only her first name be used, did not qualify for SNAP. “I was a few hundred dollars over the income limit,” she says.

But she was encouraged to receive a P-EBT card in the mail last summer without having to apply for the program because her school district is low-income.

“It has helped tremendously,” she said. “It would be so helpful if they did it again.” Jill’s children’s school now has a hybrid schedule and her children go in person four days a week. The benefits to helping with shopping for groceries would be particularly helpful, she said, as her son has a sensory processing disorder and has aversions to certain food textures and forms and therefore does not eat a lot of the food. that he served at school.

She inquired about the status of the program. She tweeted to her state senator in December: “Any plans for P-EBT programs for children over the Christmas holidays? The struggle is real for us single parents right now.

Arkansas state officials have yet to submit a P-EBT plan to the USDA. A spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Human Services addressed questions to the Arkansas Department of Education, which is leading the drafting of the state’s plan.

A spokesperson for the state’s education department confirmed that a plan was in the works, but said it was too early to know how many students would be eligible. Currently, about 81% of the state’s students learn on-site, either full-time in person or on a hybrid schedule, the spokesperson said.

Even in states that have been approved by the USDA, there have been further delays in remitting money to parents. Tennessee’s plan was approved by the USDA in late January, and families are still waiting for benefits the first week of April.

“We needed these benefits months ago,” said Tiffany Flennoy-Corder, a mother of six who lives in Nashville, where public schools were closed until October of last year. Almost half of the students in the neighborhood are still learning virtually.

Flennoy-Corder, a full-time student and young business owner, has been managing virtual education for her four school-aged children for more than a year, in grades five to ten. Normally, her children ate breakfast and lunch at school, which helped extend the SNAP benefits of the family.

After the outbreak of the pandemic, Flennoy-Corder began to feed them all – including her 18-month-old, 4-year-old and her 4-year-old nephew whom she watches during the day – every meal at home. Feeding his family during the pandemic was a Herculean feat. Sometimes that meant skipping meals herself. She has lost 36 pounds since March due to rationing.

When the first round of P-EBT launched last spring and summer, it was a big help: Flennoy received an EBT card in the mail for his four school-aged children with $ 240 d ‘benefits each.

Since then, however, she has received nothing as her condition was slow to complete the process with the USDA.

In early March, the Tennessee Department of Human Services tweeted that it would be sending out P-EBT cards “soon” so parents need to make sure their addresses are up to date. That timeline was already nearly a month behind: the state had told the USDA it would start reaping benefits by February 20.

“Is there an ETA on ‘soon’? Please advise, ”Flennoy-Corder replied on Twitter. The agency responded that the cards would be mailed later in the month. The cards still haven’t shown up this week.

“I don’t think any of them realize how mentally and emotionally devastating it is not to know how you are going to feed your children or to know that what you can feed them is not enough,” he said. said Flennoy. “It’s exhausting.”

Tennessee advocates were frustrated with the way the state administered the program. Last spring, state officials decided there would be an application process for benefits – a hurdle that meant at least 100,000 children were excluded from the program because they did not apply and the schools could not reach them.

“We hear families say, ‘I didn’t get it. I didn’t know it existed, ”said Andrés Martínez, director of policy and communications at Conexión Américas, a group that works on issues affecting Latin American families in Tennessee.

Martinez became so worried that Spanish-speaking families were going to be left behind that he created his own. Step by step explanation of YouTube on how to apply for P-EBT. The video has been viewed nearly 3,000 times on YouTube and posted on Facebook. The group has also set up a hotline to manually help households to apply.

After facing pressure from groups like Conexión, Tennessee doesn’t need a bid this time around.

Tennessee officials blamed the change in USDA guidelines for the delay and said they were among the first states to seek help this school year. Officials said the state received approval for its amended plan on March 19 and its provider said the cards were mailed to families of 350,000 eligible children.

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About Jessica Zavala

Jessica Zavala

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