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Low-income children wait months for USDA food aid to replace school meals

The gap in benefits comes as nearly one in five households with children reported earlier this month not having enough to eat, according to new Census Bureau data. Childhood hunger is associated with reduced learning and poor health outcomes, including hindered brain development as well as significant behavioral and mental health issues.

“It should be a four-alarm fire,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, noting that she has never seen food insecurity rates as high as they are right now. “Not only is it indicating short-term deprivation, but we know from lots of research that the repercussions of this will carry into the future.”

The brand new program, known as Pandemic-EBT, worked well over the spring and summer when most schools were closed, likely preventing millions of children from going hungry.

All 50 states, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands participated, handing out some $8 billion to families on debit-like cards to replace the breakfast and lunch that is available at school during normal times. A paper by the Brookings Institution in July found that the program reduced food hardship for low-income households by about 30 percent, keeping nearly 3 million to 4 million children out of hunger.

But problems started when Congress delayed extending funding for this year until the last possible moment — weeks after schools had already started reopening with a mix of virtual and in-person classes. That complicated the formula for who should receive payments. States were scrambling to figure out how to get aid out in September and most failed to do so.

After Congress extended the program in an Oct. 1 short-term spending bill, the USDA told state officials to halt their programs while the department worked out guidelines for the current school year. It took USDA six weeks to issue part of its guidance. The department must sign off on states’ plans for distributing the money so the delays meant that states didn’t even begin submitting their plans until early December.

Working out how to distribute the money has been particularly complicated this school year because of the many different models under which schools are operating. Some are fully remote; some are hybrid; some have been open but have had to intermittently shut down in-person learning due to coronavirus outbreaks. Determining which children are eligible for Pandemic-EBT and how many days’ worth of missed meals they are owed is logistically difficult.

The program gives households just under $6 per child per day of school missed.

When Congress extended the program, the bill included language aimed at simplifying implementation for states, but it has still taken USDA officials months to sort through what the department will and won’t allow states to do to get the money out without too much red tape.

“Because extending P-EBT is a complex operational issue, USDA was careful to craft clear guidance to assist states in successfully submitting their plans after P-EBT extension was authorized,” a department spokesperson said in an email.

“Unlike the spring when all schools were closed for a period of time, the 2020-2021 school year is a very dynamic situation at the state, school and student levels,” the spokesperson said, noting that the department solicited a lot of feedback from states and others as it worked on guidance.

The other complicating factor is that when lawmakers extended the program, they expanded it to include younger children in day care. The USDA spokesperson noted that extending benefits to those in child care “raises several complex operational issues,” but said the department would issue guidance on the matter “as soon as possible.”

Most states do not have data on which children are enrolled in day care, something that is a major challenge. But anti-hunger advocates have argued there is still no reason to delay aid to schoolchildren while the logistics of covering younger children are worked out.

As of this week, just one state has been approved to restart doling out P-EBT aid for this school year. Massachusetts on Wednesday announced it was given the greenlight by USDA.

“P-EBT has proven to be an effective tool during the Covid-19 pandemic to help families with students learning at home directly purchase healthy, culturally appropriate food,” Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Amy Kershaw said in a statement. “P-EBT also brings critical resources into our local communities, supporting food retailers and their employees.”

Massachusetts officials said they expect to get payments for October and November out by the end of this month. After that point, the benefits will begin flowing monthly. They are not yet covering younger children in day care, since USDA is still working on guidance.

It is likely to be weeks, if not months, before the majority of states follow, because most have not yet submitted plans to USDA. The department confirmed this week that it has received plans from just five states so far.

The lack of urgency has had real consequences for families who are barely hanging on during the economic and public health crisis. It also has kept $2 billion from being injected directly into local economies each month.

About 20 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits. Some nine million households are more than $5,000 behind on their rent. Nearly eight million Americans have fallen into poverty since this summer — the biggest jump in a single year since the government began tracking it six decades ago. The federal poverty line is just over $26,000 for a four-person household.

Anti-hunger advocates have been urging USDA to move the aid more quickly, though they acknowledge that the task is complex this year with schools operating under so many different models. The logistics are even more complicated because most states have separate agencies running their school meals programs and distributing EBT benefits like SNAP.

“We know families are in crisis. We know they need access to these benefits urgently. We also know that it’s a more complicated approach this year,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center.

Members of Congress, for their part, argue they’ve been clear with the department on how the program should be implemented.

In a letter sent Oct. 1, the day President Donald Trump signed the short-term spending bill into law, House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow wrote to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to outline how USDA should implement P-EBT with a great deal of flexibility and urged the administration to move swiftly.

“As you know, the stakes could not be higher,” the lawmakers wrote. “Our country is in the midst of a child hunger crisis, and the Department must do everything in its power to mitigate the harm.”

Some state officials, however, say that USDA has not been clear about how flexible they will be in making the program easier to implement.

The American Public Human Services Association, which represents state and local health and human services leaders, said in a statement it’s “seeking common sense policy solutions to ensure that children have the necessary nutritional supports to learn and thrive under shifting circumstances.”

State officials have been trying to work through how best to run the program this year without having to verify how many days each individual student is in school versus at home. A single family with three children might have each in a different scenario.

“It gets complicated,” said Babs Roberts, director of the Community Services Division within the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, noting that states want to move quickly but it’s been difficult to decipher to what extent USDA will allow states to simplify how they get benefits out. “It’s like a sudoku puzzle.”



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