Coronavirus Pandemic

Pa. families set to receive $1 billion in relief due to missed school meals during virtual school

Children at Southwark School eat their school lunches from styrofoam trays, Dec. 20, 2016. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

About one million Pennsylvania children enrolled in public schools will begin receiving a combined $1 billion in cash assistance this week through the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program. Eligibility is limited to students who receive free or reduced school lunch who attended virtual school in 2020-21.

The federal relief funds are meant to make up for the added food expenses families faced without access to school meals.

“Food insecurity was a serious public health risk before the pandemic, said Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Acting Secretary Meg Snead. “And the last year has exacerbated that.”

Fund amounts will vary based on the amount of time a student spent in virtual school this academic year. The maximum benefit for a child who spent the entire year in a virtual setting will be about $1,200. About 55% of the state’s school population that participates in the school lunch program in a normal year are set to get some benefits.

State officials say the subsidies will aid the many families who faced unemployment and significant reductions in household income due to the pandemic.

Vonda Ramp, Pennsylvania Department of Education director of child nutrition programs, said while schools and communities have made strong efforts to provide free meals, families are still in need.

Ramp pointed to grab-and-go meals and curbside meal pick-up programs. These are things that schools ”were never able to do before,” said Ramp. In the last year, Pennsylvania provided about 144 million meals to families.

The USDA recently announced that many of those programs will continue into the summer months and the 2021-22 school year.

But, Ramp said, the need for cash assistance remains.

“Despite the tremendous efforts of schools and communities,” said Ramp, “students and families may not be able to access all of the meals provided by schools.”

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank based in D.C, about 11% of American households surveyed in February 2021, did not have enough to eat over the past seven days — totaling 10 million children.

The center reports that up to 28% of children in Black households and 23% in Latino households, were facing food insecurity, compared to about 10% of children in white households.

Congress started the cash assistance program at the start of the pandemic, administering funds through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Starting last spring, Pennsylvania distributed more than $300 million to families through the program, giving most parents about $370 per student.

WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

In Philadelphia, Allentown and other districts in Pa., all families received the aid because all students can receive free school lunch, regardless of income. Any district where at least 40% of families are eligible for free or reduced lunch can apply for a community eligibility provision that grants free meal access to all of its students.

After the initial funds for the program expired, Pa. officials proposed an extension that was rejected by the Trump administration. The program was later re-authorized to cover the entire 2020-21 school year, but state officials said they have been waiting for the Biden Administration to release distribution guidelines before restarting it.

Moving forward, eligible families should expect three payments on state provided debit cards over the next few months. The first phase begins now, the second in June, and the third in July.

Families who were not eligible for free or reduced meals during the past two school years, can still apply for the meal program. If approved, they will receive their cash assistance during the third round of cash distribution in July.

Acting Secy. Snead warned it may take a few weeks for families to receive their first round of payments.

“I want families to be on the lookout for these benefits,” said Snead, “but I also ask that people please remain patient as this distribution unfolds.”

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