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Education

Pennsylvania Families Are Finally Getting Funds To Make Up For Missed School Meals During The Pandemic. Here's Why It Took Months To Get Aid To Hungry Kids

frozen meal.jpg
Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA
Frozen meals were provided to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank during the pandemic for children at its learning hubs.

This past school year hasn’t been easy for Nicole Coulter, a mother of four children in the Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills.

Her kids, ages nine, six, five, and one have been at home, and like all growing kids, they eat a lot. Were it not for the pandemic, her three oldest children would be eating breakfasts and lunches at their Turtle Creek charter school.

Coulter said buying extra food to make up for those meals has been a strain on the family’s finances.

“We utilize every food bank and every blessing box that we can,” she said. “Along with going to the grocery store.”

There are meals available at the school, but driving there and back twice a day with all four kids while three are supposed to be online learning just isn’t practical.

She and the families of more than 900,000 Pennsylvania schoolchildren should be getting funds soon to make up for all the meals they aren’t eating at school, but the money – more than $1 billion in Pennsylvania – was delayed for months by a number of bureaucratic hurdles.

The funds started to go out last week and the first round should be distributed by the end of the month, state human service and education officials said last week.

Pandemic Aid Hits Roadblocks

Pandemic-EBT, the program to replace lost school meals, was first approved by Congress last March, after schools initially shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. (EBT stands for Electronic Benefit Transfer, because the benefits are given to families on an electronic debit card.)

The first round of funds went out relatively quickly last year. But things have been much slower this school year.

The Trump administration denied a state plan in September to give a smaller group of families money more quickly. Then the funds were further slowed by questions about how to handle hybrid learning arrangements, as well as Pennsylvania’s hundreds of school districts not having a centralized database of student information that could be easily shared with the state Department of Human Services.

In March, state human service and education officials said families would get funds in May to cover meals from last September, October and November. Two additional rounds of payments are expected in June and July to cover the rest of this school year. In other words, school will be out for the summer by the time families get all the funds.

A report last year from anti-hunger organization Feeding America found the pandemic had increased food insecurity in southwestern Pennsylvania by 42%. Among children, the increase was 57%.

“We had to develop a plan for not only students who are attending their schools remotely, but also students who have what are called 'hybrid' or 'blended models,' where they have some days in person and some days not in person. So, we needed to develop a calculation for how we would provide benefits to those students,” explained Cathy Buhrig, director of policy in the Office of Income Maintenance in the state Department of Human Services.

Buhrig said she knows the assistance is needed as soon as possible.

“We have heard from families across the state about how difficult and burdensome it's been to have students at home and how that impacts their budgets, especially during periods where we all know there are families that are suffering because of unemployment or reduced hours.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that oversees the program, said it moved as quickly as it could.

"Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) is a vital tool for helping families whose children have been missing meals due to COVID-related school closures. Congress provided new authorities in late December 2020 that allowed USDA to simplify P-EBT administration for states. The department and the Biden Administration acted swiftly to make it easier for states to set up and manage the program. We know families are struggling and are committed to working with our state partners to get them the help they need as soon as possible,” Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, said in a statement.

School Meals Aren't Accessible To Everyone

But while P-EBT money has been held up, schools in the region have also struggled to efficiently get meals to students. Throughout the pandemic, pre-packaged meals have been available for pickup at schools, but many families didn’t show up.

Families likely had transportation challenges, were busy with online classes during meal pickup times, or were getting food elsewhere, believes Curtistine Walker, food services director at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Walker said the grab and go meals were the only option the district had – it didn’t have the capacity to deliver and instead relied on families to come to the schools during specific time windows.

“The participation was really not what we anticipated. It was low,” she said.

Fewer than 50% of the 22,000 students the district serves have been picking up meals, according to Walker.

In the meantime, outside organizations have tried to fill the gap and get food to students in other ways.

About 1,000 students – most from Pittsburgh Public – have eaten meals at community centers, churches and after school providers turned into temporary learning hubs this past school year. The Allegheny County Department of Human Services is now funding the hubs through the end of the school year.

“We’re reaching out to organizations to help us fund the fact that we’re trying to feed children, that is crazy to me that isn’t something that’s on every docket, that there isn’t funding that’s coming at the state level or the government level that’s saying this is a priority. Kids need to eat,” said Melissa Fuller, vice president of operations at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. Some of their centers service as many as eight school districts. But she said some districts, like Pittsburgh, said they couldn’t deliver pre-packaged meals to the hubs.

So the Boys and Girls Clubs leaned heavily on other partnerships. Fuller said food came in from everywhere – Eat'n Park, food trucks and the Greater Pittsburgh Community food bank.

Officials say P-EBT money started going out last week to reimburse families for meals during the school year. That will help families Coulter’s in Penn Hills, who said that she and her husband are looking forward to the day – hopefully very soon – when they get their funds to cover meals for their four kids.

"It’s the main difference between getting groceries or not," she said. "We're very thankful, very, very thankful."