States skipping federal food aid for kids

Seven states did not apply for the program this summer.
Nearly one-fifth of states have yet to be approved for a federal food aid program for low-income children. (AP Photo/Alberto Mariani)

Millions of low-income children will not receive an extra $120 to spend on groceries this summer because their state passed up federal food aid money, anti-hunger advocates say.

Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and Texas did not submit plans to participate in the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program, or P-EBT, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

Officials in some of those states have told local news outlets that the federal Covid-19 aid program is no longer necessary, now that the public health emergency is over. They also say they do not have the staff or technology needed to distribute the funds.

Anti-hunger advocates say states are missing out on an opportunity to help kids who often go hungry during the summer, at a time when other Covid-19 aid programs have ended.

“This is really one of the last pandemic supports that can reach families at a time when they may still be struggling with high food costs,” said Carolyn Vega, associate director of policy analysis at No Kid Hungry, a national campaign run by Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger nonprofit.

Congress created P-EBT in 2020 to help feed low-income children while public schools and daycares were closed. This will be the third and final year states receive summer P-EBT funding.

Only school-aged children are eligible this summer, and they can receive up to $120 each. States do not have to have participated in the P-EBT program this past school year to apply for summer funds.

Officials in states that did not apply for this year’s summer program say it is too difficult to administer. Distributing benefits requires state education and human services agencies to work together to identify qualifying children and send them a debit card their families can use to buy food.

“The reality is the requirements of the P-EBT program are labor intensive for both school districts and DPHHS,” the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services said last month in a statement to the Montana Television Network.

The program does not follow the same processes and rules as food stamp benefits, the agency statement said. “Instead, it requires manual processes for data integrity, quality control and benefits issuance, which is a significant administrative burden for what was meant to be a temporary program.”

Officials in Missouri, which struggled to distribute last summer’s P-EBT funds in a timely manner, made a similar argument.

“As many Missouri families can attest, there have been a number of challenges throughout the process due to the federal requirements associated with accessing and administering the benefits,” education department spokesperson Mallory McGowin told the Missouri Independent, “coupled with the limitations of our current state and local data collection systems.”

Anti-hunger advocates point out that all seven states forgoing food aid this year have distributed P-EBT money in the past.

“Every single state that did not apply this summer put out benefits either in [summer] 2021 or summer 2022 or both,” said Kelsey Boone, senior child nutrition policy analyst at the Food Research and Action Center. “They have all done this program before.”

Boone said her organization has been urging states to participate this summer so they can prepare for a similar, permanent federal program that will launch next year.

She said the federal government will reimburse states for the full cost of administering P-EBT this summer. It will only reimburse half the cost of the new, permanent summer program.

“We did see this summer as a bridge between the pandemic EBT program and the permanent program coming,” Boone said. “We are afraid that states that did not take advantage this summer will next summer think, ‘We didn’t do it last summer, we still think it’s too complicated — we’re not going to do it.’”

Editor’s note: This story was updated July 25 at 2 p.m. to reflect new information about participation in the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program.