NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) – On top of all the other stresses the pandemic brought, add food insecurity for children.
With so many students relying on meals during school hours, that was lost from March to May when districts closed.
At the end of May, the USDA approved the P-EBT or Pandemic EBT program be administered by the Department of Human Services to monetarily replace the meals not provided to the children.
Tuesday, Commissioner Danielle Barnes saying, “we began a process for distributing these benefits which include payments to families for each child in the amount of $5.70 for each meal they would have received during the time in which they were in school.”
Like other EBT programs, the benefits can be used in any grocery store that accepts EBT payment as well as Amazon and Walmart online. Commissioner Barnes says that as of Monday this week, more than 450,000 children have been approved for the program and “that represents just slightly over half of all students in the state of Tennessee.”
DHS also created an online application process to verify addresses and family information, making sure those families benefit from the program. But that’s where Attorney Mary Kathryn Harcombe, Legal Director of TIRRC, says there’s a problem.
“We already know who would have got free lunches. Right? I mean eligibility is already figured out. What the other states did is simply just sent EBT cards to the eligible children. Tennessee has so far resisted doing that but as I said we have shown the application process doesn’t work and if we don’t try something else we are going to end up with over 200,000 children not reached and over $50 million dollars of federal money that Tennessee is just leaving on the table.”
While Harcombe says it’s particularly frustrating because it’s the most vulnerable children and families not getting access to the application, whether it be from not having internet, phone data, closed libraries, or the knowledge of how to go through it; she also reminds that any money not distributed by September 30th is kept by the federal government.
Harcombe saying, “Several times now DHS has bumped the application period out, but we’re still not reaching these kids and now the deadline is tomorrow…Another way to look at this is, this is harmful not just to the individual children but to the whole community because this is $50 million dollars’ worth of money that would be spent at local grocery stores in a time when economies across the state are hurting.”
Another reason she says the application isn’t the best option is because parents already enrolled in SNAP had funds automatically loaded, but students with free or reduced lunch didn’t get the same opportunity. “The state knows who the children are, the local schools have the addresses, it shouldn’t be rocket science to share that knowledge and to get this food aid to the children who desperately need it.”
She’s not blaming DHS but isn’t satisfied with the process.
“We have tried, DHS has tried, local partner agencies have tried to make the application process work, it’s not working. It is not working…. It’s time to cut our losses and try something new especially because there are models out there that we know do work.”
When News4 asked Commissioner Barnes about forfeiting the money back to the federal government if it’s not all applied for, she said, “Let’s be clear it’s not a forfeiture, right? These are direct reimbursements that these dollars come directly to the folks that apply. And we have extended this application period a few times. And the federal government, the way that this program was constructed, required that all dollars be spent by September 30th and that does require the appeals period as well. So that’s why we’ve pushed this out as long as we possibly can.”
Commissioner Barnes continues, “We pushed it out hoping that with school opening we could reach even more children but at the end of the day, we don’t know exactly how many children are going to apply. We do think that we have really good numbers and that we’ve had again more than half of all of our children that have qualified for this program.”
You can find a link to the application for P-EBT here.