About a month ago, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act created a pandemic electronic benefit transfer (P-EBT) program to give low-income families access to nutritious food while schools are closed. That law was enacted on March 18th and required states to submit, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve, plans to operate the new P-EBT program. USDA guidance to states followed on March 20th, specifying the process for submitting plans and obtaining agency approval. Now, weeks later, only nine states have submitted plans and only two, Rhode Island and Michigan, have been approved to date. Given that American households are reporting increased furloughs, layoffs, and unemployment applications, P-EBT could provide a critical lifeline for families when school meals are unavailable.
What Is P-EBT?
The P-EBT program enables states to temporarily issue EBT cards to low-income families with children who attend a school that offers free school meals, if that school has been closed for five or more consecutive days. The value of the P-EBT card would be at least that of free school meals for each child over a five-day school week, amounting to about $114 per month per child.
Who Is Eligible?
A state must first submit a P-EBT plan that includes information such as how the states will provide EBT benefits to families, dates of implementation, and the benefit amounts. Before households in a state can receive P-EBT benefits, the USDA must approve the state’s plan.
Unfortunately, state offices that administer the nation’s food stamp program (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) are “struggling to respond to the growing number of families and individuals who are becoming eligible for SNAP benefits,” which could lead to these offices becoming overwhelmed if they do not carefully plan for the implementation of P-EBT, according to the Food Research & Action Center.
The P-EBT program is particularly interesting as it applies to both SNAP-participating households and those that do not currently participate in SNAP. Per the USDA’s recent guidance, households must have at least one child who attends a school closed for at least five consecutive days, and that child must otherwise be qualified to receive free or reduced-price school meals. As part of the states’ planning process, they must address how they will verify income information to establish eligibility.