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02:13 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Millions of low-income school children are still waiting receive federal help to buy food, even as the number of families having trouble affording groceries skyrockets.

Eleven states, including Georgia, Mississippi and Utah, have yet to join the federal coronavirus relief program that gives families money in place of the meals their children would have received in school for free or a reduced price.

But even in states already participating in the Pandemic EBT program, millions of children haven’t gotten assistance – more than two months after schools closed.

“We know that families are losing jobs and wages, and P-EBT really is an amazing support that can help these families, but it’s not moving fast enough,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the Food Research & Action Center. “It is concerning that it’s taking so long and we know that families are in crisis.”

Congress created the Pandemic EBT program as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in mid-March, when states started shuttering schools, making it harder for children to receive these crucial meals.

Some 22 million children eat a free or reduced-price lunch at school each day, on average. While districts are trying to provide alternative arrangements, it’s only reaching a small fraction of those in need.

At the same time, food insecurity among families is growing as unemployment soars amid the pandemic. More than 40% of mothers with children age 12 and under said in April that the food they bought didn’t last and they didn’t have enough money to get more, up from about 15% in 2018, according to a recent survey from the Brookings Institution.

“Looking over time, particularly to the relatively small increase in child food insecurity during the Great Recession, it is clear that young children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times,” wrote Lauren Bauer, the survey’s author.

Money for meals

The Pandemic EBT provision provides about $114 a month per child, which is the value of a free breakfast and lunch for five school days a week. Eligible families will receive the funds for the time their schools were closed, typically from mid-March, until the end of the school year sometime in May or June, depending on the state.

The program, however, has been challenging to set up. It took three weeks for the US Department of Agriculture to approve the first state – Michigan – and only 17 states were given the nod in April. Another 21 states have received the go-ahead so far in May.

But even once they get approval, states face multiple hurdles in getting the funds to families, particularly those who aren’t already in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps. In many states, there are far more eligible households in this category than those who receive food stamps, who will simply have the additional funds added to their existing benefit cards.

States have to work with their school districts to identify all the qualified children in households that aren’t on food stamps and then send them benefit cards with the funds.

Also, they have to pick up the “not inconsiderable” cost of issuing the cards to these households at a time when they are suffering budget crunches, said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Some states are automatically providing the funds to families who don’t receive food stamps. But others – including California, Missouri and Illinois – are requiring them to apply for the benefit, sometimes because it’s harder for the school districts to transfer the records to the social service agencies. But this may delay or prevent some households from participating.

Many states have started sending funds to families, particularly those already in the food stamp program. But many others, including New York, Maryland and Florida – which together have more than 4.5 million eligible children, have said they won’t distribute the money until June at the earliest.

In Virginia, the roughly 620,000 eligible children should have their Pandemic EBT funds on the families’ cards or in the mail by Monday, at the latest, said Duke Storen, commissioner of the state’s Department of Social Services.

The agency, which received federal approval in late April, had been concerned that it would take more time to deliver the benefits to the children who needed cards – about half the total – because of a limited supply. However, the vendor recently delivered the full batch, allowing the state to distribute the funds more quickly.

Still, Storen knows the money – $376 per child for 66 missed days of school – can’t come soon enough for some children and their parents.

“While I wish we could have put the benefit in the hands of families sooner – they needed them a month ago, but they also need these benefits today,” said Storen, whose agency spent $2 million to administer the program, half of which will be reimbursed by the federal government.

Not yet participating

Nearly a dozen states, however, have yet to join the program, and that has an impact on their young residents.

At Marietta City Schools in Georgia, 60% of the 8,000 students would qualify for the Pandemic EBT, according to Superintendent Grant Rivera.

Even with the grab-and-go meal program they have offered while the schools have been closed, it’s been difficult to reach all the eligible students, he told CNN. Only 34% of have participated.

Having a card with money on it would be a “game-changer for kids,” he said.

“What I’ve seen overwhelmingly is that they desperately need this food,” Rivera said. “And I’ve heard anecdotally from countless families that they’ve lost their jobs. Unemployment has not processed. They literally don’t know how they’re going to feed their kids.”

Utah, meanwhile, was unable to apply because of “several obstacles in data collection,” a spokesperson for the state Department of Workforce Services told CNN in a statement.

“Looking at the guidelines we found several obstacles in data collection of students receiving free and reduced lunch in order to determine eligibility,” said spokesman Brooke Porter Coles. “This obstacle made it difficult to meet the deadline for participation. Utah is diligently working with our federal and educational partners to create a solution in order to provide this benefit.”