This is a sad parable about a good public policy ineffectively implemented.
When the pandemic hit and the nation was forced to close its schools, one of the casualties was the Free and Reduced Lunch (“FARL”) nutrition program which provides subsidized or free breakfasts and lunches to low-income children every school day. With schools and their cafeterias closed, districts were forced to find other ways of getting those needed meals into the mouths of their students. Many set up daily boxed lunch “drop sites,” some were packaging three-day meal packs, and others were even delivering meals to students by school bus.
The fact that low-income families, many of whom rely on public transportation, had to choose between possibly exposing themselves to a deadly virus or going hungry is a stark example of the inequitable toll COVID-19 is extracting on those who live in poverty. And for those who don’t really give a shit about the poor—you know who you are—those improvised food distribution methods are incredibly inefficient and costly, so there are fiscal reasons for wanting a better way as well.
Enter the federal CARES Act which provided $8.8 billion for supplemental school meals programs and allowed states to piggyback on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Electronic Benefits Transfer (“SNAP-EBT”) process. Since the 1990s, SNAP (formerly referred to as “food stamps”), distributes nutrition assistance through EBT cards that function essentially like debit cards and can be used at grocery stores, convenience stores, and even farmers’ markets.
CARES allows states to use the SNAP-EBT mechanism to get FARL benefits into the hands of low-income families. Dubbed the Pandemic-EBT (or “P-EBT”), it’s a much safer and more effective way to get food to low-income families, and it relieves school districts of the burden of having to create and maintain new food distribution processes since it leverages the efficiencies of our existing commercial markets.
But as strong a public policy as the P-EBT is, it requires the states to overcome a data problem. States administer the program, but most states don’t have address information on students eligible for FARL. That data resides with districts and isn’t usually reported up to the states. So what most states did was to publicize the benefit and set up mechanisms for low-income families to apply for a P-EBT card. As you might imagine, given the effectiveness of statewide communications, the accessibility of online and app-based application processes, and the general distress people are facing as they try to navigate the complexities of life during a pandemic, many eligible families did not apply.
The data matching process is not necessarily simple, but it is relatively quick and not that costly. But what makes its lack of widespread application even more baffling is that the Schusterman Family Foundation has offered to foot the cost of the technical assistance for UPD Consulting to help solve that problem. With free added capacity and a demonstrated method for getting more federal funds to those desperately in need of help, it should be a no-brainer.
And the numbers are shocking. With one of our state clients, their online application process only netted about 6,000 of the estimated 33,000 students eligible for P-EBT cards. After applying our data extraction and matching process, the state was able to “find” all 27,000 of the missing eligible families and proactively send them P-EBT cards.
The P-EBT program has already been extended by continuing resolution in Congress, and more funding for it will almost certainly be included in the next COVID relief bill. We think states should be taking advantage of the generous opportunity the Schusterman Family Foundation has provided. They should be getting their ducks in a row now so their families in need don’t have to wait, or worse, miss out entirely on this important benefit.