Pandemic EBT keeps Alabama children fed when school meals aren’t an option

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of nearly every Alabama family, including families with school-aged children. All of a sudden, parents have to double as teachers, coaches and lunchroom cooks and servers.

Parents with low incomes are also stretching limited grocery dollars to replace meals that their children normally got at school – often at no cost. As a result, the number of families with young children struggling to put food on the table has increased astonishingly. Two in five such households are in that precarious situation nationally.

Children lost more than school when schools closed

When Alabama schools shut down in mid-March, some schools offered drive-through meal service providing several days of sack lunches and snacks. Summer food program providers jumped into gear, starting their meal services months early.

Despite these valiant efforts, grab-and-go lunches and summer food programs simply don’t have the capacity to replace traditional school meals. School meals reach nearly all school-aged children. Grab-and-go lunches and summer food programs, however, offer meals to only around 14% of school-aged children. This leaves parents with additional food costs as the economy tanks and hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs.

Congress and Alabama acted quickly to feed hungry children

Public school closures threatened to create a hunger epidemic among children living in households with low incomes. Congress responded to this risk by including the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act. Alabama became one of the first states in the South, and seventh in the nation, to apply successfully for P-EBT.

P-EBT is a joint venture of the Alabama Department of Education, which administers school meals, and the Department of Human Resources (DHR), which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). P-EBT provides many families of school-aged children with a debit-like card called an electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, card. This card is loaded with the value of each child’s school meals from March 18 to May 31.

Streamlined eligibility means no application is required

P-EBT eligibility is automatic for any family participating in SNAP or with school-aged children getting free or reduced-price school meals. Parents don’t have to apply or go to DHR to get the assistance. If parents receive a letter about P-EBT, they need only to return it with the requested information to receive benefits.

Participants can spend P-EBT benefits at any grocery store or other store that accepts SNAP. They also can use benefits for online orders if the store lets people use SNAP assistance to order groceries online to pick up at the store.

Most families who participate in SNAP already have received an additional deposit onto their SNAP EBT card. Families who don’t participate in SNAP but applied during the school year for free or reduced-price school meals will automatically receive EBT cards in the mail. All the family has to do is activate the card with a PIN number to use it.

Many families who don’t participate in SNAP are still eligible

Some children received free meals because they attended a school where all students received free meals through community eligibility. Their families will get letters from DHR requesting information like the parent’s name or address to send the EBT card. All that is necessary to get P-EBT is to respond to the questions and mail the letter back.

Some families may have made too much to qualify for free or reduced-price meals in March or April but have lost jobs since then. These families can apply for SNAP by May 31 and receive both SNAP and P-EBT benefits retroactively to May 1. They also can apply for free or reduced-price school meals and receive a P-EBT card for May.

Children who get grab-and-go meals at school or participate in a summer food program are still eligible for P-EBT assistance. The last day on which someone can become newly eligible for P-EBT is May 31, but traditional SNAP assistance still will be available. People with questions about P-EBT can call DHR at 800-410-5827.

What do we still need to do to help hungry families?

Children don’t quit eating just because school is out for summer. P-EBT is a vital replacement for lost school meals. But it is still tied to the school calendar and can’t help families during the long summer ahead.

Congress can do two things to help in the next COVID-19 relief package. First, lawmakers can and should increase SNAP benefits by 15% for everyone. This will help families with school-aged children, as well as seniors, people with disabilities, and people who have lost their jobs. And it will particularly help SNAP participants with the lowest incomes. These families already get the maximum benefit and therefore did not get an assistance increase in the previous relief package.

Second, Congress could extend P-EBT assistance throughout the summer. This would allow P-EBT to continue feeding children until schools reopen in the fall. Continuing to deposit the value of school meals on EBT cards would be easy if Congress allows it to happen. And it would go a long way toward ensuring no Alabama child goes hungry during this pandemic.