(Missouri Independent) – Jennifer Sheils logs into her online portal for Missouri food benefits every day, refreshing the screen in the hopes that the state’s deposit of roughly $1,500 in summer supplemental grocery assistance has arrived.
For months, Sheils, a mother of five in St. Charles, has waited without a clear timeline from the state, except for officials’ assurance that the benefits would be disbursed by the end of this year. She has scrambled to make ends meet.
Now, the state says, she could be waiting until next year to receive the benefits.
The federally-funded COVID relief program, called summer Pandemic EBT, is designed to retroactively help families cover summer food costs. The program provides grocery benefits of $391 for every child who qualified for subsidized school lunches during the prior academic year, and for children under 6 who qualify for SNAP. Four of Sheils’ children are in school and qualify for free meals, making them eligible for the one-time benefit.
Missouri’s plan for distributing the aid was approved by the federal government on Oct. 19, after all, but five other states had been approved.
By that point, many states had finished dispersing benefits. By the end of September, for instance, Kentucky and Tennessee had already finished issuing the benefits. Arkansas concluded in mid-October. In Oklahoma, all benefits were provided in July and October.
Each additional month without the benefit, Sheils said, “things kind of snowball.”
In the fall, Sheils’ family had to divert money from utilities bills to groceries, narrowly avoiding being disconnected. Last month, her family couldn’t afford to pay their credit card bill.
Sheils worries about her ability to afford Christmas gifts for her children, or even the ingredients to bake holiday cookies.
If the food benefits had been issued closer to summertime, Sheils said, her family wouldn’t be in such a precarious position.
“If [the benefits] would have been there when you needed it, you wouldn’t have had to do some things like use credit cards,” she said.
“I don’t think people understand that everything just kind of compounds.”
Series of delays
Because of a series of delays, the benefits designed to help families with summer food costs likely won’t be distributed until deep into winter.
In the state’s plan, submitted to the federal government in October, Missouri officials predicted families would begin receiving benefits “by the end of 2022 or sooner.”
Now, the state urges schools to begin submitting eligibility data by the end of the year — the first of several steps to providing benefits. That is a timeline that does not seem likely to allow the majority of benefits to be issued this year.
The benefits program, Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT), is a federally-funded pandemic relief program that includes not only summertime benefits for low-income children and students but also a program for academic-year benefits.
The school year benefits are more narrowly targeted toward low-income students who missed school due to COVID-19 and thus missed subsidized meals. The benefit is prorated based on the number of COVID-related absences.
States must have an approved school year plan in order to submit a summer plan, and Missouri’s school year plan for 2021-2022 wasn’t approved until June. The federal government approved the state’s summer plan on Oct. 19, after the state was told to resubmit it for leaving out children under age 6.
At that point, Missouri was one of just six states that hadn’t yet been approved for the summer program.
The state cited administrative hurdles to data-sharing across departments, and delays brought about by the need to construct a new data collection portal. Before this year, the state “did not have a mechanism to collect student absence data,” which delayed the dispersal of benefits, said Mallory McGowin, spokesperson for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state estimates that it will issue benefits to 454,000 schoolchildren and nearly 158,000 children under age 6, according to the plan submitted to the federal government.
The “exact timeline of when families will receive a P-EBT benefit is not known,” but it could be “as early” as the end of 2022, McGowin said. An education department news release for families last week included the same message.
That timeline is less certain than the one McGowin gave in October before the state’s plan was approved, that “families should start receiving benefits by the end of 2022.”
Asked whether it’s fair to predict the majority of children will not be receiving their benefits before 2023, McGowin said she is “not going to make any predictions” and reiterated that the exact timeline is unknown.
Officials cited many of the same reasons for the possible delay as they did previously, particularly technological. This is the first year the program is run by the education department rather than social services.
Building a new online portal for data submission required “securing a contract with a vendor,” McGowin said. The education department then needed to test the new system in October and November. Earlier, the education department was delayed because it didn’t have the under-6 data required for their plan, and needed to get it from the social service department, which contributed to “a delay in USDA’s final approval that shifted our timeline back some,” McGowin said.
The news release posted last week provided some of the first public guidance for families regarding this year’s program.
Families had, for months, received little communication from the state regarding P-EBT benefits or when they would be dispersed, which advocates said caused some to mistakenly believe they had missed the benefits. Advocates from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which has a public benefits division, and Operation Food Search, which is a hunger relief advocacy group, both noted an influx in calls during the fall from people concerned about having missed their P-EBT benefits.
‘Depending on how quickly schools submit data’
In its letter to school districts, the education department urged them to “be prepared to start submitting students eligible for P-EBT by the end of December 2022.”
Compiling the absence data may require schools to resolve complex questions about eligibility. Even a single day absence due to COVID qualifies a low-income child for an additional $21.30 in food benefits, according to the guidance in the letter, so schools will need to ensure absences were correctly coded last year. Districts vary in the mechanisms they used to track COVID-related absences, according to a training video released by the education department, which also includes instructions for districts that did not track COVID-related absences at all.
“Depending on how quickly schools submit data and when DSS is given the information to process the benefits and issue the card,” McGowin added, “families may receive a benefit as early as the end of 2022.” (emphasis original)
The video teaching schools how to use the data portal has only been available since Nov. 16, and many districts will go on winter break in about two weeks. If districts are able to submit all the data by the end of the month, there is still no guarantee the majority of benefits will be issued before 2023.
After schools compile the data in the department of education’s portal, it must go to the social service department for benefits to be processed and distributed.
The spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, Heather Dolce, declined to provide an estimate of how long it will take to disburse those benefits once the department receives the information.
The benefits “will be loaded as soon as possible to an existing P-EBT card, if available, or a new P-EBT card that will be issued to the child,” Dolce said.
Issuing a new benefits card could take more time, Dolce added, because of the “additional, manual process” required.
Many eligible children did not receive the benefit last year, likely leaving them in the more time-intensive category of requiring new cards.
Only around 50% of the 440,000 children predicted to be eligible actually received summer 2021 P-EBT benefits, according to data provided by the social service agency. Last year, the social service agency ran the program and required participants to opt-in with an application. This time, families do not need to apply to receive the benefits.
Sheils, the mother in St. Charles, applied for summer P-EBT in August of last year for her children but did not receive benefits until February of this year, after months of following up with her children’s schools and the state, she said. (DSS emphasizes that the process this year is “significantly different than previous years.”)
This year’s delays remind Sheils of her difficulties obtaining the benefits last year. She is not optimistic her benefits will arrive in the next few weeks, “unless there’s some miracle and the school does what they’re supposed to, and it works flawlessly.”