PA Aims for Spring Start for 2020-2021 P-EBT School Meals Benefits Distribution
Just Harvest expects new USDA appointment will boost nutrition program access
PITTSBURGH, January 25, 2021 — Last week, the federal and state government took significant steps to help struggling families feed their children. On January 19, the PA Department of Education (PDE) notified school administrators that the Department of Human Services (DHS) intends to issue Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) school meals benefits in early to mid-spring. On January 22, Pres. Biden signed an executive order to boost P-EBT benefits nationwide by 15%. Those benefits will be retroactive to the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year in PA once distributed.
Through P-EBT, eligible school students receive temporary emergency nutrition benefits loaded on EBT cards that are used to purchase food. For the 2020-2021 school year, P-EBT benefits will be available to families whose children attend an eligible school that has reduced its in-person instruction days.
DHS will provide a more definitive timeline for issuing the benefits after the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves Pennsylvania’s state plan. In the meantime, to assist DHS, the PDE is asking schools to encourage families to:
1) make sure the school has their student’s current address, and
2) apply for free or reduced-price school meals if their child isn’t already enrolled. Families whose children attend schools that automatically enroll all students in free meals in a normal school year through the “community eligibility provision” need not apply. Families can apply using the state’s benefits application website: www.compass.state.pa.us/compass.web/Public/CMPHome
On a daily basis since the pandemic began, Just Harvest has received urgent requests from struggling parents. They have sought help obtaining — or information on the status of — government assistance with feeding children who have been forced to go without school meals due to virtual instruction.
The federal P-EBT program was established in March 2020 under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (CARES Act) to help families whose children were missing free or reduced-price school meals due to virtual instruction. The maximum P-EBT benefit was $370.50 for each eligible child enrolled during the 2019-20 school year, pro-rated if they enrolled in free or reduced-price meals due to household income loss after schools closed. In December, Congress extended P-EBT through the end of September 2021 when it passed the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021, and Other Extensions Act and thereby making P-EBT available for the full 2020-21 school year. The latest authorization aimed to reduce bureaucratic hurdles to P-EBT distribution for states and to expand the benefit to children under age six through a process that is separate from benefit issuance to school-aged students. USDA has yet to release guidance as it relates to benefits for children under 6.
“We have hope that the new federal administration will provide more flexibility to states and make it easier for Pennsylvania to administer this benefit,” said Just Harvest’s policy advocate Ann Sanders. “But, Pennsylvania will still need cooperation from schools to get the information needed to properly issue benefits to school-aged students and the USDA will still have to approve the state’s distribution plan. This will all take weeks to do, if not longer. We are looking at mid-March, at the earliest, when families will get this much-needed benefit. And that is if things go smoothly.”
Pres. Biden has appointed Stacy Dean, one of the nation’s leading advocates for access to federal nutrition programs, as the USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. Before joining USDA, Dean served as Vice President for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. She is a widely esteemed expert on SNAP policy, and Just Harvest is absolutely thrilled about her new position in the USDA.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better appointee to this role,” said Just Harvest executive director Ken Regal.