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STORY BY HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH

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The slow rollout shows pitfalls of new bureaucracy during an emergency $2 billion-a-month program called Pandemic-EBT, or P-EBT
Published on April 8, 2021 5:07 AM

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School mess: Why millions of parents are owed billions of dollars
WASHINGTON DC - Seven months into the school year, millions of low-income families are still waiting for billions of dollars in federal food aid that was supposed to compensate them for school meals that were missed during remote learning.

The Biden administration recently accelerated the rollout, but the program remains mired in bureaucracy, as states struggle with numerous logistical issues, from tracking student eligibility and addresses to getting approval from USDA to provide aid. Nearly half of states still haven't sent any of the money out, even as child hunger rates remain near record highs.

Congress first created the $2 billion-a-month program called Pandemic-EBT, or P-EBT, last spring during the early days of the pandemic when schools were shuttered to give households a debit card to buy groceries. Lawmakers extended it for the whole school year in September as families continued to grapple with school disruption.

The slow rollout shows the pitfalls of standing up new bureaucratic channels during an emergency. It also could be exacerbating alarmingly high rates of child hunger. One in six households with children is reporting they do not have enough to eat, a rate much higher than even in the depths of the Great Recession. Researchers found the first round of the aid that went out last year alleviated hunger for millions of children.

It's a sharp contrast to other forms of federal aid that have made their way to consumers and businesses rapidly during the crisis. Last year, the federal government was able to begin the Paycheck Protection Program and get hundreds of billions in loans out to businesses in a matter of weeks. Stimulus checks, which can be directly deposited into accounts, have also gone out quickly to millions. "Moral of the story from the pandemic is: Fast and simple," said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, who tracks food insecurity closely. "That's what we needed. When we had success, it was fast and simple."

The USDA, for its part, contends that the current administration has already simplified the process to make it easier for states to get the money out. They issued long-delayed guidance within days of President Joe Biden's inauguration.

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The secretary said he is aggressively reaching out to state officials about the aid. "I have been calling governors of every state and territory, including those yet to apply, to encourage them to do so. We're leaving no stone unturned," he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Vilsack noted that the administration has expanded nutrition assistance in several ways since January, including by overseeing a 15 percent across-the-board increase in food stamp benefits Congress authorized in December.

USDA just last week reversed Trump administration policy to open up $1 billion more per month in emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments to millions of the lowest-income households who had previously seen no increase in aid during the crisis.

P-EBT, which reaches a lot of families who don't qualify for SNAP, got off to a very slow start under the Trump administration and was already running behind when Biden took office.

The current administration has sped up the process and increased the benefits each household is owed. But large swaths of the country are still behind. Many states have been slow to submit distribution plans to USDA, which must approve them first.

The department has approved 30 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., to distribute the aid to school-aged kids. Some of the most populous states like California and New York have yet to be approved, leaving millions of low-income families awaiting payments with no word on when they might receive them.

Just six states and District of Columbia have been approved to get P-EBT benefits to kids under age 6, who became eligible for the program in September...