WASHINGTON — As child hunger soars to levels without modern precedent, an emergency program Congress created two months ago has reached only a small fraction of the 30 million children it was intended to help.
The program, Pandemic-EBT, aims to compensate for the declining reach of school meals by placing their value on electronic cards that families can use in grocery stores. But collecting lunch lists from thousands of school districts, transferring them to often-outdated state computers and issuing specialized cards has proved much harder than envisioned, leaving millions of needy families waiting to buy food.
Congress approved the effort in mid-March as part of the Families First act, its first major coronavirus relief package. By May 15, only about 15% of eligible children had received benefits, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Just 12 states had started sending money, and Michigan and Rhode Island alone had finished.
The pace is accelerating, with millions of families expected to receive payments in the coming weeks. But 16 states still lack federal approval to begin the payments and Utah declined to participate, saying it did not have the administrative capacity to distribute the money. Many Southern states with high rates of child hunger have gotten a slow start.
As of May 15, states had issued payments for about 4.4 million children, out of the 30 million who potentially qualify, the Times analysis shows. If all states reached everyone eligible, an unlikely prospect, families could receive as much as $10 billion.
“The program’s going to be very important, but it hasn’t been fast,” said Duke Storen, a former nutrition advocate who leads the Virginia Department of Social Services, which began sending money last week. “The intent is to replace lost meals at school, but the meals have been lost for months, and few benefits have gone out.”
Among pandemic-related hardship, child hunger stands out for its urgency and symbolic resonance — after decades of exposés and reforms, a country of vast wealth still struggles to feed its young. So vital are school meals in some places, states are issuing replacement benefits in waves to keep grocers from being overwhelmed.
The lag between congressional action and families buying food is, in many places, less a story of bureaucratic indifference than a testament to the convoluted nature of the American safety net.
Many officials have worked overtime to start the program amid competing crises. Yet even in delivering a benefit as simple as a school meal, federal, state and local governments can all add delays, as can the private companies that print the cards, which can only buy food.
“We get it — this is dire,” said Lisa Watson, a deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. “We want these benefits out.”
Aid in the United States generally follows a patchwork logic, but the arbitrary nature of the moment is especially pronounced: Families with three children in Jacksonville, North Carolina, have received $1,100, while families in Jacksonville, Florida, have received nothing. One corner of red-state America (Fredonia, Arizona) can get help, while 7 miles away, another (Kanab, Utah) cannot.
“This is why we need a federal nutrition safety net — hunger does not have state borders,” said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group.
Many anti-hunger experts still think the program will make a big difference, and advocates generally have been reluctant to fault the states. “Obviously we feel a lot of urgency,” said Lisa Davis of Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger group. But she called the administrative challenge — old computers, multiple state agencies — “a herculean task.”
But Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, who runs the Ohio Association of Food Banks, said the money was coming “as a trickle, not a fire hose as it should have been.”
More than half of schoolchildren qualify for subsidized meals — 78% in Louisiana and 85% in West Virginia. The program reaches higher up the income ladder than most aid efforts, to families with incomes up to 185% of the poverty line, or $48,000 for a family of four.
After classrooms closed in mid-March, most schools continued to serve meals in grab-and-go lines or along bus routes, even as cooks and drivers fell ill. But despite tenacious efforts, the meals have reached a small share of those who previously got them. National data is lacking, but weekly surveys of low-income families in Philadelphia (by Elizabeth Ananat of Barnard College and Anna Gassman-Pines of Duke University) found the share ranged from 11% to 36%.
Child hunger is soaring
All signs show child hunger is soaring. In a survey of mothers with young children by the Brookings Institution, nearly one-fifth said their children were not getting enough to eat — a rate three times higher than the worst of the Great Recession. The Census Bureau reported last week that 31% of households with children lacked the amount or quality of food they desired because they “couldn’t afford to buy more.”
With big increases in other federal relief gradually reaching families, the problem could ease. But child hunger usually grows during the summer when school kitchens close, and teenagers now have less ability to supplement family budgets with summer jobs. Food prices in April rose at the fastest pace in 46 years.
In creating Pandemic-EBT (for Electronic Benefit Transfer), Congress bet that plastic cards could reach more people than school meals and offer greater choice. It provides $5.70 a child for every lost school day — $285 per child in Texas and $420 in New York, where the school year ends later. The federal government pays the benefits, and states pay half the administrative costs.
Michigan set the pace, making its first payments on April 17, about four weeks after Congress passed the law. It has reached nearly 1 million children, while some states are still debating whether to proceed.
“The numbers on hunger are horrifying, and this was a fast way to get help to all kinds of families,” said Robert Gordon, the state’s health and human services director, citing research that shows children with nutritional aid do much better in school.
Michigan’s Midwestern neighbors Illinois and Wisconsin also sent money in April, as did Arizona, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. But Florida, Georgia and Mississippi have still not received federal permission to begin, and South Carolina has yet to apply.
Two Southern states moved swiftly: Alabama and North Carolina (the third state to get a federal green light).
Blue states have generally moved fastest. Two-thirds of states that sent money by May 15 have Democratic governors. Of the 16 states without waivers, 11 are led by Republicans.
Among those who felt the pinch of closed schools is Melynda Baker, a Walgreens cashier in Tyler, Texas, whose boys are 15 and 12. Though the schools offered grab-and-go meals, Baker works during the pickup time and her disabled husband does not drive. That has left her replacing 20 weekly meals — five breakfasts and five lunches for each big-eating son.
“I’m sorry, but they’re boys — they’re 6 feet tall and need a lot of nutrients,” she said.
Baker makes about $10 an hour and budgets $125 in food stamps for groceries each week, with a firm rule it has to last. Now that it must stretch further, strawberries are out and sloppy joes are in.
She and her husband feed their sons first, pretending to be distracted while the boys grab seconds. “We’ll say, ‘Oh, there’s plenty left,’ and then eat a bologna sandwich later,” she said. But the older one caught on. “He’s like, ‘No, Mom, I’m full,’ when I know he’s not.”
When Baker saw a Facebook post about Pandemic-EBT she thought it was a hoax. But $570 arrived last week, and she is saving it for meat sales to stock her deep freeze.
“When you think about all the government has to do, the money came relatively quickly,” she said. “I’m very appreciative.”
In South Euclid, Ohio, near Cleveland, Rebecca Payton feels less patient. When her husband, a mechanic, lost his job at the same time their children, 11 and 6, stopped going to school, food expenses rose as income vanished. A trying month ensued until they got unemployment insurance and food stamps. Worse than the deteriorating diet was the stress. “I was really worried I wouldn’t be able to feed my children,” she said.
Until a reporter called, Payton had not heard of Pandemic-EBT. Told she qualified for $600 in emergency aid, Payton urged officials to hurry. “It doesn’t seem like an emergency to them,” she said. Ohio and Pennsylvania plan to start sending benefits this week.
Most states are sending money first to families on food stamps, since they already have cards. It is harder to reach the others, about 40%, since eligibility lists often reside in school districts, some with obsolete addresses. Some states automatically send cards to families that lack them. Others make them apply. How many will know to do so is unknown.
California enlisted a nonprofit group, Code for America, which got philanthropic support to build an online application for families without cards, a group that includes 1.7 million children. The site went live on Friday morning and by midafternoon had applications for 370,000 children.
“It tells me the amount of need in this state is staggering,” said Tracey Patterson, the Code for America manager who oversaw the project. “It also tells me that government technology doesn’t have to be bad. We tested it with 1,200 people,” including non-English speakers.
Unlike most aid programs, school lunches — and Pandemic-EBT — are available to children regardless of immigration status. But Congress left out Puerto Rico, perhaps by accident.
Utah, other states pass up or delay help to many
In forgoing the program, Utah officials may have kept needy families from receiving as much as $50 million. Amid the pandemic, “changes we can implement in a short period of time must not be too complex,” a human services spokeswoman, Brooke Porter Coles, wrote in an email.
South Carolina hesitated because administrative costs could top $1 million, though needy families stand to collect more than 100 times as much. The state aims to seek federal approval by June 1.
In New York, the pandemic’s center, officials said they would start sending payments in late May but not reach all 2.1 million children until July.
One big question is whether Congress will extend the program for the summer. Its supporters say the cards could pioneer an enduring solution to the summer hunger. The Democratic-led House recently included an extension in a $3 trillion aid package, which the Republican leaders of the Senate rejected.
With so much effort expended on laying the groundwork, the program’s advocates say it would be a waste to let it lapse. “We have the apparatus,” said Mandy Cohen, North Carolina’s secretary of health and human services. “I would lean heavily into extending this to make sure we don’t have hungry kids.”