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Pandemic-EBT: Children wait months for billions of dollars in federal food aid amid pandemic


He is still waiting, which has forced him to reduce his meat consumption, buy more cold cuts, rice and pasta and pay for his groceries with a credit card. The $ 840 he received in September for meals his children missed when schools closed last spring are long gone.

“This is absurd,” said Francese, a New York resident with a disability. “The school year will be over before they start releasing the funds. It’s extremely difficult and the price of food has skyrocketed.”

While all states provided this help to parents after the epidemic closed in virtually all districts last spring, many have been slow to apply and be approved for this school year as the administration of the program has become a lot. more complex in the midst of flexible student schedules. When President Joe Biden took office on January 20, only six states and Puerto Rico had been approved by the US Department of Agriculture.

The Biden administration has made the program more generous and flexible, reached out to state officials to participate, and worked to speed up approvals.

“The situation demands that we act as quickly as possible to get the food into the hands of the parents,” said Stacy Dean, USDA assistant. Under-Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “Their children are running out of free and discounted meals. We see this as an extremely urgent matter.”

As of mid-April, 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico received approval for school-aged children and 12 states and the District of Columbia for pandemic-EBT child care benefits. , a more recent program. This covers more than 20 million children, who will receive more than $ 17.7 billion in nutritional assistance.

The agency reviews school and child care plans for 18 other states and territories.

In the 17 states that have not yet been approved, more than 9 million school-aged children received an estimated $ 3.5 billion from March 2020 to the end of the last school year, according to Marisa Kirk-Epstein , Director of Research, Data and Policy Analysis. at Share Our Strength, a group fighting child hunger. Funding is expected to be much more for the current year.

Plus, some parents say they haven’t seen a dime yet, even in states that have already received the nod for this school year.

In New York, Francese will have to continue to wait. The state, which was approved on April 9 to send $ 2.2 billion to an estimated 2.2 million children, will issue benefits from September to March in a single installment, likely in June, and then provide funds for the last three months of the school year from July. through September, according to USDA approval letter.

Feeding schoolchildren during pandemic lockdowns

As part of a coronavirus rescue program in March 2020, Congress created the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides low-income families with money to replace free or reduced-cost meals their children would have. received at school.

These benefits, which were handed out to more than half of school-aged children in the United States last year, have run between $ 250 and $ 450 per student, depending on how long the school has been closed in the spring. . Some 18 states have also made payments for the start of this school year since the program was funded until September 30.

States have, however, struggled to identify eligible children and send the funds to them, especially to families who do not receive food stamps. Some states have required families to apply for the benefit. It took weeks, and in many cases months, for parents to receive payments.

Pandemic-EBT: Children wait months for billions of dollars in federal food aid amid pandemic

Congress then extended the program for this school year as part of a government funding bill last fall.

Lawmakers also broadened it to include children under the age of 6 whose families receive food stamps and whose daycares have suffered closures or cuts due to a pandemic. Young children who receive food vouchers are also eligible if their daycare or residence is near closed schools or schools operating at reduced capacity.

When Biden took office in January, he increased the benefit by 15% through an executive order. And the program was extended over the summer and for the duration of the public health crisis as part of the Democrats’ $ 1.9 trillion relief package that was passed last month.

Families now receive $ 6.82 for each day their children’s school is closed, up from $ 5.86.

However, states still face enormous challenges in setting up and administering the program for the 2020-2021 school year, mainly due to the wide variety of student schedules. Some children go to school most, if not most of the time. Others are on a hybrid plan. Still others choose to be totally remote, even if their school organizes face-to-face classes.

And on top of all that, districts have changed their operations as the coronavirus rises and falls in their area.

In addition, identifying eligible young children and matching them with child care services or school closures has also proven difficult.

“Last year virtually all children who were entitled to free or reduced school meals were able to take it and get a fixed and fixed amount,” Kirk-Epstein said. “The more barriers you put in place to determine who is eligible, the harder it will be to get these benefits for the kids who need them. That’s the big change.”

Congress and the USDA have tried to keep things simple and provide flexibility for states, which are not required to calculate benefits based on each child’s schedule for the school year. States have developed a variety of ways to signal student eligibility, although they need the agency’s final approval.

Take California, which is still awaiting clearance after submitting an initial plan covering both school-aged children and children in child care on February 18 and a revised plan on March 22. The Golden State has provided nearly $ 1.5 billion in benefits to nearly 4 million children. during the previous school year.

Pandemic-EBT: Children wait months for billions of dollars in federal food aid amid pandemic

“California is currently working with the USDA to answer additional questions and comments for approval,” said Scott Murray, spokesperson for the State Department of Human Services.

Christina Martinez, however, is tired of waiting. Martinez, who is caring for her granddaughter and three young grandchildren, received her last Pandemic-EBT payment of $ 199 in November, which covered her oldest grandchild back to school.

Once she gets the funds for this year, she plans to use them to buy more nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, which are more expensive but kids love.

“I have four kids under 6 who eat me out of the house and out of the house,” said Martinez, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Hesperia, Calif. “I may not be able to get such healthy food as with P-EBT.”

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