After months of delays, state officials announced Thursday that eligible families will finally receive funds from a federal summer food program to help with the rising cost of groceries.
Summer Pandemic-EBT is an emergency program originally implemented with the CARES Act of 2020 to help families with meals after school closures due to the pandemic. State officials initially required families to complete an online application to receive the funds, which child nutrition advocates criticized as causing unnecessary barriers to families already identified as needing assistance.
This is the longest time families have had to wait for support and with school closed for the summer, parents we work with have shared stories about how difficult it has been.
– Signe Anderson, Nutrition Advocacy Director, Tennessee Justice Center
The Tennessee Department of Human Services submitted a plan to the federal government, which approved it in May 2020, but the state delayed the distribution of P-EBT benefits for two months. More than 700,000 children received benefits in the 2020-2021 school year.
This year, DHS submitted its request in February and scheduled P-EBT to be distributed to families in May, but delayed distribution until July 30.
“This is the longest families have had to wait for support and with school closed for the summer, parents we work with have shared stories about how difficult it has been,” said Signe Anderson.director of nutrition advocacy for the Tennessee Justice Center.
According to DHS spokesman Devin Stone, the delay was due to technical difficulties in verifying the data to see which children were eligible.
While more children became eligible for P-EBT in 2020 due to school closures, most schools returned to in-school instruction for the 2021-2022 school year. Children had to have excused absences due to COVID-19, have attended a school that closed for at least five days, and be eligible for free meals through the National School Lunch Program or attended a Community Eligibility Program to qualify for P-EBT .
This year, more than 62,000 children in Tennessee are expected to receive P-EBT, which is significantly fewer than the previous school year.
Families were not required to complete an application, but state officials had trouble collecting data on COVID-19-related absences from schools that did not collect the information or release the data to the state.
Anderson said federal law prevents school officials from disclosing a child’s medical history.
“A school counselor who works in Knox County said the school administration initially instructed teachers not to mark absences as COVID-19 related,” Anderson said.
Early Childcare P-EBT is also expected to reach families in the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, families have struggled while waiting for P-EBT while experiencing additional hardship from higher gas prices and inflation.
“So they’re really looking forward to P-EBT and they need the support,” Anderson said.
“Sometimes parents skip meals, and if it gets really bad, there are parents who go to a food pantry. We always hear from parents that with P-EBT benefits, they were able to afford more of the healthy foods they know their kids need, and without it, some of the healthy things that are expensive fall out of their budget,” he added.