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Politics & Government

'It was a struggle:' Some Pennsylvania families are still owed money for last year's missed meals

food school lunches eating students hunger.jpg
Sarah Schneider
/
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, pictured in this file photo.

Pennsylvania’s Pandemic-EBT program is supposed to provide money to families to make up for missed school meals during COVID-related school closures. But parents and advocates say the funds still haven’t reached everyone who was supposed to receive them.

Some families are still waiting on funds they were supposed to get months ago to make up for meals students missed during last school year. State human service officials say more than one million children in Pennsylvania are eligible for P-EBT, and they’re working to re-issue some cards. They also set up a hotline to help families with problems.

But advocates said last week that there have been close to 100,000 inquiries through the state’s P-EBT portal and call line about missing benefits. Benefits are on an electronic card families can use like a debit card.

Takesha Lewis, whose kids attend Baldwin-Whitehall schools, is one of them. She received a P-EBT card to make up for the meals her daughter missed, but not her son.

It was just like my calls was just not being heard or my emails was not being seen. Nothing.

“I waited until July and never received anything, so I started calling emailing — nothing. No response. Nothing. It was just like my calls was just not being heard or my emails was not being seen. Nothing.”

The loss of school meals was a hardship, she said.

“It was a struggle. Like, you know, yes, I got it for my daughter, but it's still the amount that that I received wasn't enough to feed both my kids three meals a day…while they were home. And then once he went back in the school, it was still a struggle because I was barely working because of COVID,” Lewis said.

State human service officials said last week a hotline to help families who never received their P-EBT funds is now up and running.

“The P-EBT program has been a lifeline to Pennsylvania families with children affected by school closure throughout the pandemic, and I understand that delays in receiving this benefit have created challenges,” Acting DHS Secretary Meg Snead said in a statement.

State officials also said they would reissue about 35,000 P-EBT cards in specific areas and school districts with “significant instances” of cards that were not received or not activated. Among them are Connellsville Area School District, Erie City School District, McKeesport Area School District, New Kensington-Arnold School District, and Titusville Area School District.

Anti-hunger advocates have expressed frustration over the delays.

"We understand this is a brand new massive program and are grateful that Congress quickly responded to the nutritional and economic impacts of the pandemic on low-income families with children who need school meals. P-EBT has been a difficult benefit to issue for many states, but here in Pennsylvania, the lack of clear information and prolonged periods with no resolution for families has added insult to injury for those who are frustrated and desperately trying to make ends meet," Kathy Fisher, Policy Director of Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said in a written statement.

Pittsburgh-based Just Harvest and the Coalition Against Hunger said they have received complaints from hundreds of families across the state about missing or incorrect P-EBT.

“States that have been able to get P-EBT out quickly and smoothly have universal school data systems, which helped speed up the issuing of benefits and reduce errors. Other states also set up call centers to respond to problems as they occurred, whereas our state had understaffed departments only recently try to hire and train additional staff, which created this huge backlog of unaddressed problems. The long term underfunding of PA human services and education has created this recipe for disaster,” said Ann Sanders, public policy advocate at Just Harvest.

Pennsylvanians who have not received their child’s P-EBT benefits or have a P-EBT-related problem can call the Department of Human Services hotline at 484-363-2137 ,Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.