Time’s up for students’ pandemic meal money, but most in WA haven’t enrolled

Less than half of eligible students in Washington state have applied for the emergency food funding intended to bolster hunger programs during school closures, and advocates worry that many of the state’s most vulnerable will go hungry. Load Error The deadline for the Pandemic EBT program, passed as part of […]

Less than half of eligible students in Washington state have applied for the emergency food funding intended to bolster hunger programs during school closures, and advocates worry that many of the state’s most vulnerable will go hungry.

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The deadline for the Pandemic EBT program, passed as part of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March, is Sept. 11. Families have until 5 p.m. to submit applications to the state.

More than 560,000 Washington K-12 students are eligible because they already qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The funding equates to $5.70 per school day, or $399 for missed meals from March to June.

About 200,000 of this group hold EBT cards through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, meaning they were automatically enrolled in this emergency program. Everyone else — all 358,442 of them — had to apply for P-EBT.

As of Aug. 30, only 44 percent had been approved, according to data from the Department of Social and Health Services. The data includes online applications but not those submitted over the phone.

Tacoma Public Schools has the highest number of students eligible for P-EBT at more than 19,000. More than 11,000 of them had to apply, but fewer than 5,000 had.

This discrepancy troubles Claire Lane, director of the Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition.

“The best system we have to feed kids is either SNAP or schools,” she told The News Tribune this week. “Not everybody is eligible for SNAP and schools are strapped. I’m really worried about the number of kids going hungry in Washington.”

Though she commended the incredible work of food banks in Washington, they, too, are strapped: In a press call this week with the state Department of Agriculture, food bank leaders estimated that the number of hungry Washingtonians has doubled during the pandemic. They believe that by the end of the year, 1 in 5 residents will battle food insecurity.

According to recent research from Northwestern University, more than 18 percent of Washington residents sought emergency food assistance at some point from March through June. Last year, only about 10 percent had.

“All of this is in the context of massive child hunger,” said Lane.

P-EBT functions much like an existing provision of the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, which is administered by the USDA alongside state social services departments.

Though approved by Congress in March, the USDA did not issue guidance to states until late April. Here in Washington, DSHS did not launch the application until June 28.

That timing complicated the P-EBT rollout, as classes ended and students signed off Zoom.

“We don’t know how well that information got out to the building-level staff,” said Lane, referring to social workers, foster care liaisons and immigrant leaders. “All of those folks that work with really high-need families who were most likely to get disconnected from school in the first place — there wasn’t that opportunity for that really hands-on outreach.”

State Rep. Mari Leavitt, whose district includes southwest Pierce County, echoed the fraught nature of the end of school in the spring and the start of an online year this month.

“School districts are so busy themselves trying to get started with school,” she said. “It’s one of many things that’s a priority. We just don’t want families to not know and just miss out on these dollars.”

Schools pivoted to bagging breakfasts and lunches, but in many cases, as staffs grew thin, pickup times were limited to once a week.

“If you miss that one-hour window, your kids have just lost a week’s worth of meals, and that school district has missed a week’s worth of reimbursement,” said Lane.

Pierce and South King County are home to several districts with more than 8,000 students eligible for P-EBT, thousands of whom had to apply. Thousands still haven’t.

In Puyallup and Franklin Pierce districts, only a third of this group had applied as of August 30. In Clover Park, Bethel and Auburn, all with more than 10,000 eligible students, less than 40 percent had.

Conversely, in Yakima School District, about 70 percent had.

If you believe your child might be eligible for P-EBT, apply online at WashingtonConnection.org or call DSHS at 877-502-2233.

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©2020 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

Visit The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) at www.TheNewsTribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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