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Some Pennsylvania families are still waiting on funds to make up for school meals students missed a year ago

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Sarah Boden
/
90.5 WESA
This file photo shows a grocery store produce aisle. Many families in Pennsylvania continue to wait for federal funds they should have received to make up for missed school meals due to COVID-19-related school closures.

Funds for Pennsylvania’s Pandemic-EBT program, which aims to provide money to families to make up for missed school meals during pandemic-driven school closures, appear to have not yet reached everyone who was supposed to receive the aid. Some families are still waiting on funds they were supposed to get months ago.

The first round of federal assistance rolled out relatively quickly in spring of 2020 to close to 1 million Pennsylvania schoolchildren.

But things slowed down by the fall of 2020, as some schools reopened, others remained closed, and others had complicated or frequently changing “hybrid” schedules. The state’s hundreds of school districts weren’t able to quickly share information with the Department of Human Services in a centralized way. Aid distribution was also hampered by the Trump administration’s refusal to approve a smaller and more limited round of assistance that would have gone out more quickly.

Consequently, the state wasn’t able to get more than $1 billion in aid to families until May and June of this year – after the 2020-2021 school year had already ended. Families have said – and state and federal officials have acknowledged – that long wait was a hardship for needy families whose kids normally would have eaten breakfast and lunch at school five days a week.

That round of aid, that went out in May and June, appears to have still not reached everyone.

“P-EBT has been a lifeline for lots of families — especially those whose incomes are just slightly too much to qualify for [food stamp] benefits,” said Ann Sanders, a policy advocate at anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest. “Although the state has managed to deliver benefits to the vast majority of eligible students, we know there are still lots of families who still haven't received these crucial benefits.”

State human service officials said more than one million children in Pennsylvania are eligible for P-EBT, and all benefit cards were mailed through mid-July. As of early September, more than 746,000 cards have been activated, said Ali Fogarty, a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services.

“We know, though, that with such a large volume, there are likely to be delays in mail, lost cards, or envelopes mistakenly thrown out. Staff are monitoring the phone line and web form and are responding to inquiries as soon as possible, but there is a significant backlog due to repeat inquiries,” she said.

She said the department is working to review inquiries and expects to launch a staffed call center in early October to continue to work through concerns so cards can be reissued as needed.

“It has been frustrating that the state was unable to hire additional staff early on this summer, so that families could be served in a timely manner. But we are happy to see that they are working hard to fix these issues and ensure that families do eventually get the benefits they need and are eligible for,” Sanders said.

The organization also sent a letter to state education and human service officials asking them to put contingency plans in place in case kids can’t attend school five days a week in-person due to quarantining or closures.

State officials said they are working on a plan for this school year.

If you have not received your family’s P-EBT, or have an issue with your P-EBT, more information is available here.

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Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.
To make informed decisions, the public must receive unbiased truth.

As Southwestern Pennsylvania’s only independent public radio news and information station, we give voice to provocative ideas that foster a vibrant, informed, diverse and caring community.

WESA is primarily funded by listener contributions. Your financial support comes with no strings attached. It is free from commercial or political influence…that’s what makes WESA a free vital community resource. Your support funds important local journalism by WESA and NPR national reporters.

You give what you can, and you get news you can trust.
Please give now to continue providing fact-based journalism — a monthly gift of just $5 or $10 makes a big difference.