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States Can Help Low-Income Children Get Enough to Eat During the Pandemic

States can use a new temporary program — Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) — to help get food to the nearly 30 million children in low-income families who can’t access their free or reduced-price school meals due to widespread school closures. The Agriculture Department (USDA) just approved the first state plan to implement the program and other states can quickly follow suit, providing crucial help to kids losing access to school breakfasts and lunches at the same time that parents are losing their jobs or reducing their work hours to care for children at home.

To offer P-EBT — enacted in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on March 18 — each state must develop a plan for how it will identify eligible children and get benefits to them quickly, and USDA must approve it. Families already getting SNAP benefits will get the benefits automatically, either on their SNAP electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card or a separate card. Other families that were getting free or reduced-price meals — because they were approved based on data from another program or an application or because the children attend a school that serves meals at no charge to all students under community eligibility — will also get benefits on a new card. Some states are working hard to develop their plans, but not a single family has received benefits, which will amount to about $114 per child per month (adjusted for the number of days that schools are closed).

That’s about to change. Arizona, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and Rhode Island have submitted plans and USDA approved the first yesterday, letting Michigan launch its P-EBT program. To issue its benefits, Michigan will match SNAP data against data from its education department’s list of students receiving free or reduced-price meals, so that families already getting SNAP benefits will get P-EBT benefits on their SNAP EBT cards. Other students will get P-EBT cards in the mail along with instructions on how to use them.

Each state will need to develop a plan that works for it. States in which school districts maintain such school meals data might need to develop a mechanism to share the data with SNAP administrators. States can also use data from other programs — including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and foster care — to identify children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals but not receiving SNAP benefits. Some states might also need to develop an application for households that can’t be identified through a data match.

States that haven’t begun developing a P-EBT plan must get to work. School nutrition programs are making valiant efforts to continue serving meals, but those efforts won’t guarantee that families with low-income children have enough to eat. Only a portion of districts could establish such programs and they mainly relied on families picking up the meals, which might be impossible for parents who are still working in essential jobs or for whom such outings present too great a health risk. And some of those programs have had to scale back or close due to staff illness, social distancing precautions, or a lack of staff or volunteers. Benefits on an EBT card can reach more people and don’t require frequent outings to pick up meals.

Moreover, even though the Families First Coronavirus Response Act lets states raise SNAP benefits to the maximum household amount, about 40 percent of SNAP households are already getting the maximum and thus won’t benefit. They include about 1.9 million families with school-age children who are among the lowest-income SNAP recipients and who haven’t received any separate SNAP benefit to compensate for lost school meals.

Fortunately, policymakers have created a mechanism for states to get replacement benefits to those who are losing out on school breakfast or lunch. Now, it’s critical that states develop their plans, get USDA approval, and start issuing P-EBT benefits. The children missing meals shouldn’t have to wait any longer.