The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden renewed a free program to feed needy kids. Most states haven’t even applied.

At its height, Pandemic-EBT fed millions of low-income students. Now it’s faltering as burdened administrators opt out.

First-graders Kendal Kates, left, and Ryan Kenney at Langley K-8 School on Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh. (Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP)

Odessa Davis worked three jobs to get by, until the pandemic shutdowns made it impossible to work to put food on the table for herself and her 12-year-old son, Leon.

Previously, Leon had gotten reduced-price meals at his school. Now the expense and preparation of his meals fell to Davis, 33. At first, the Montgomery County, Md., resident resorted to picking up food boxes from Capital Area Food Bank, whipping up meals on the fly as if in an episode of “Chopped,” trying to make it fun.

“I went to whatever food drives were available. I was sad that I had to do it,” she said. “I felt like a failure.”

Soon, the federal government devised a plan to get lunch money into the hands of low-income families, like Davis and her son, to make up for meals missed because of school closures or illness, which meant $200 every month for the duo.

The money was a lifeline. But at the start of this school year, it stopped.

“I was upset that it stopped, because I did rely on it.” she said. “They cut it off, and we’re still in a pandemic.”

At its peak, 18.5 million kids relied on Pandemic-EBT, which began under the Trump administration and continued under President Biden. The program gave families forced home a debit-card benefit to use at the grocery store, for some online food shopping or even at farmers markets.

Now the program is flagging. Most states have not applied for the school year that began in September. Experts say the pandemic has changed in ways that make maintaining the program an impossible burden for already strapped administrators.

As Deputy Agriculture Undersecretary Stacy Dean told The Washington Post, “The context has changed.”

Kids could go hungry this summer with school lunch programs in peril

With only eight states approved for this federal aid, and another 17 somewhere in the application process, the remaining states threaten to leave billions of dollars on the table in direct assistance to students and preschoolers who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

And now there’s renewed urgency: As the omicron variant surges, at least 5,409 schools had canceled class or switched to virtual learning by the end of the first week of this month. Under the current law, students in states that aren’t approved for the benefit this school year are ineligible to receive assistance in the summer, when school is not in session.

As the pandemic continues to drive widespread food insecurity, these administrative difficulties could result in millions of kids going hungry — all while money intended for their relief goes unused.

“Throughout the pandemic, the P-EBT program has been one of our best tools for providing children the meals they need to stay healthy,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Scott said it is alarming that some states have not yet secured access to the program, estimating that 30 million eligible kids might not receive summer benefits.

“These decisions will have serious consequences for millions of families. I hope that every state will fulfill its responsibility to prevent child hunger as we continue to fight this pandemic,” he said.

The program was designed to get money for food into the hands of the kids who qualified when schools went remote. At the time, it was easy: Almost all schools went virtual, and all low-income kids entitled to free or reduced-price school meals got the benefit. Needy families received $10.8 billion in benefits that year.

USDA announces $1.5 billion to aid schools rocked by inflation, supply chain disruptions

But when school resumed in September 2020, with a hodgepodge of students studying in-person and virtually, the program became harder to administer. This school year, with most American schools returning to the classroom in September, it became a nightmare. Administrators were forced to track which individual students were quarantining or out sick, with low-income kids mailed reimbursement just for the meals they missed on those days.

Before the pandemic, states didn’t have to gather data on individual student statuses, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the public policy think tank Urban Institute, which has studied the administration of the program.

“Centralized databases for this kind of information were very uncommon, and departments of education were not set up to collect and monitor these types of data,” she said.

Donna Martin, the school nutrition director for Burke County, Ga., said the program places a heavy administrative burden on schools, requiring staffs to track students day-to-day so the correct students get the benefit.

School administrators have to deal with a dizzying number of variables. What if a student is temporarily living with their grandmother or in foster care, or their family got evicted, and they’re living at a different address? Where should that money be sent? Who has the relevant address?

“Everyone has just too much on their plates. I am getting a million calls daily from parents and grandparents about P-EBT and why their child got this amount, and another child got another amount,” she said. “The main problem is a staffing issue and coordinating all the parties in order to gather the information.”

For Martin, these issues are compounded with severe supply chain problems and staffing shortfalls.

Some states are throwing up their hands, even as many of the other pandemic-era social safety net programs (enhanced unemployment, child tax credits, eviction moratoriums) are ending, leaving low-income Americans further at risk in an ongoing emergency.

Dean and the USDA are strongly urging states to complete the application process.

“We have a team focused exclusively on Pandemic-EBT, and they are anxious to review and approve every state’s plan,” she said. “It’s an urgent matter for us, and we’re going to approve plans as quickly as we can.”

Georgia is one of the states that has not yet applied. According to Linette Dodson, director of the state’s nutrition program, officials aim to start working on an application soon. The plan for the school year that started in September has not been submitted to the USDA because, in part, the state is still paying out the money students were entitled to for last year, she said, and they haven’t disbursed money yet for last summer, either.

Georgia is not alone. Many states are still doling out last year’s money. Texas didn’t issue benefits for last school year until May 2021, when the school year was nearly over. Delays are also coming from the federal side: The USDA didn’t approve some states’ plans for last year until the school year was over.

In many states, needy kids are still waiting for last year’s lunch money.

Many administrators thought that “normalcy” would be reestablished this year, everyone would be back in school and the program would no longer be needed. Instead these problems are now heightened: Of the eight states that have been approved for this year, the USDA does not know which, if any, have started distributing those benefits.

“The data management piece has been a challenge for sure. No one source had all of the necessary information available to provide the funds,” Dodson said.

For last school year, 56 states and other jurisdictions (this includes the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and others) were approved to provide P-EBT to students, 49 were approved to provide it for children younger than 6 in child-care facilities and 47 were approved to provide it over the summer.

And for this school year, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin are the only states that have had P-EBT programs approved. Thus far, 15 blue states and 10 red states have applied or been approved. But the reluctance appears to be less ideological and more logistical.

“There’s not a single state out there that is saying they don’t want to do this, philosophically. State agencies believe in the value of this program, but we need support from our federal partners to simplify P-EBT in a way that helps them chart a course forward,” said Matthew Lyons, director of policy and research for American Public Human Services Association. He said that as frustration mounts, states have been asking the USDA for approval of options that could accelerate plan approvals and implementation.

Waxman and other advocates say Congress could consider legislation that would allow for the program to kick in automatically during periods when in-person learning is disrupted, and that would allow states to participate in the summer program without having done a school year plan, with the aim of getting benefit cards in the pipeline much quicker than is happening now.

“Like many other things in the pandemic,” Waxman said, “we’re always playing catch-up in the child nutrition space, rather than anticipating what may come next.”