Tens of Thousands of Pa. Families Still Haven’t Received Federal Nutrition Benefit

Pandemic EBT to help families cover the cost of lost school meals still owed for Spring 2020, 2020-21 school year

Pennsylvania Dept. of Human Services (DHS) has announced that it is reissuing Pandemic EBT cards to 35,000 households in Luzerne County and in nearly two dozen school districts across Pennsylvania, including McKeesport Area School District, due to low card activation in these areas. This comes after families throughout Pa. submitted nearly 100,000 inquiries through the state’s P-EBT portal and call line about missing benefits. The state automatically issued P-EBT benefits to eligible families starting in June and the three months following. P-EBT was created to provide funds to families in order to help feed their children when they were unable to access in-person school meals due to remote learning during the pandemic. 

Children are eligible for P-EBT if they are enrolled in free or reduced-price school meals through the National School Lunch Program but were unable to attend school in person due to COVID-19. Congress first approved Pandemic EBT in March 2020 and extended it for the 2020-21 school year and summer to help families deal with the pandemic’s continuing interruption to school and summer programming for children. Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 6 Pennsylvania children were food insecure, and the numbers are estimated to have increased. 

“We understand this is a brand new massive program and are grateful that Congress quickly responded to the nutritional and economic impacts of the pandemic on low-income families with children who need school meals. P-EBT has been a difficult benefit to issue for many states, but here in PA, the lack of clear information and prolonged periods with no resolution for families has added insult to injury for those who are frustrated and desperately trying to make ends meet,” said Kathy Fisher, Policy Director of Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.  

Just Harvest and the Coalition Against Hunger have received complaints from hundreds of families across the state about missing or incorrect P-EBT, sometimes dating back to when the pandemic first started. The agencies have discussed their many concerns with staff at the PA Dept. of Human Services (DHS) and the PA Dept. of Education (PDE) with oversight of the program. In response to the organizations’ most recent request for specific improvements in P-EBT administration,  the state reported it had issued P-EBT benefits to nearly one million eligible school children statewide in response to the unanticipated school closures of 2020. They wrote that “despite administrative delays”, which presumably include delays by the USDA under the Trump administration to issuing program guidance and approving state plans, more than 746,704 new P-EBT cards for the 2020-21 School Year and summer were activated by student households as of September 3, 2021. 

The letter also attested they’d increased staffing for the P-EBT program and were preparing the launch of a live P-EBT hotline. That hotline is now in operation but families have reported great difficulty in getting through to those staffing it.

“States that have been able to get P-EBT out quickly and smoothly have universal school data systems, which helped speed up the issuing of benefits and reduce errors. Other states also set up call centers to respond to problems as they occurred, whereas our state had understaffed departments only recently try to hire and train additional staff, which created this huge backlog of unaddressed problems. The long term underfunding of PA human services and education has created this recipe for disaster,” said Ann Sanders, public policy advocate at Just Harvest.

As the pandemic continues to be unpredictable, USDA has extended the program for the current school year so that it can respond as needed to school closures and students relying on virtual learning. PA has not yet submitted its proposed plan for USDA’s approval. Advocates are urging the state to learn from past mistakes, adopt best practices utilized by other states, and quickly issue all missing benefits. Families should be able to rest assured they’ll get long-overdue assistance, as well as the help they will need if children miss any further in-person instruction due to COVID. 


Just Harvest works to promote a just system of food access by addressing the root causes of hunger – systemic poverty and inequity – through policy advocacy, community-based solutions, and improving access to safety net benefits.

The Coalition Against Hunger strives to build a community where all people have the food they need to lead healthy lives. It connects people with food assistance programs and nutrition education; provides resources to a network of food pantries; and educates the public and policymakers about responsible solutions that prevent people from going hungry.

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