Food insecurity is a major issue in Oklahoma. Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 5 children lived in households where access to food wasn’t always reliable. Now, due to the broad economic impact of COVID-19, it is projected that in 2020, 1 in 3 Oklahoma children will be food insecure. Though schools are working tirelessly to continue to provide these meals, accessing those meals requires caregivers to take time away from work and have reliable transportation, two things many struggling families can’t afford. The good news is that a new program is providing some temporary relief.
More than 300,000 Oklahoma families have started to receive unmarked envelopes addressed to their children in the mail over the past few weeks. The envelopes include a Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) card loaded with $250 for families to use for purchasing groceries. This is good news for Oklahoma families. Unfortunately, what is not included, is a detailed explanation on what this benefit is, and why Oklahoma children have been receiving it seemingly out of the blue.
What is Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT)? P-EBT is designed to provide food to families who lost access to free or reduced-price school meals due to school closures this spring. Families who qualified and should have received the P-EBT card include those with children who were certified for free or reduced-price lunch as of March 2020, and families of children who attended schools that offered free meals to all students. The P-EBT card holds $250 per qualifying child to help families cover the costs of meals their child(ren) would have gotten from school in March, April, and May.
Families who have received the cards in the mail have understandably had some questions about P-EBT.
- Qualifying families were identified through a data-matching process between the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and the Oklahoma State Department of Education. These families were then auto-enrolled in the program, without requiring the family to fill out any paperwork. No sensitive information was shared with outside entities during this process.
- For immigrant families, using P-EBT will not impact immigration status related to the public charge rule. As a child nutrition program, P-EBT does not apply to public charge.
- Spending the money loaded on the P-EBT card does not take it away from someone more in need. P-EBT spending stimulates the local economy, positively affecting the community.
- If a family wants to decline the benefit, or has not yet received the benefit when they believe they qualify, they can contact the Oklahoma Department of Human Services at (405) 522-5050.
What made this happen? Faced with the growing public health crisis created by COVID-19, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in March. This measure included an expanded version of a U.S. Department of Agriculture summer pilot program designed to more efficiently provide families access to food during school breaks. This pilot program went nationwide under the name P-EBT, which provides millions of struggling families across the country much-needed grocery purchasing assistance.
With FFCRA authorized by Congress, states were tasked with figuring out how to bring the money to qualifying families using systems older than many of the children who are eligible to receive the benefits. All 50 states are now operating P-EBT, having added the program while also contending with increasing demand for their existing programs and navigating moving teams to remote work during a global pandemic. Leadership and staff at the state Department of Human Services and the state Department of Education should be recognized for their valuable work.
How long will P-EBT last? P-EBT is currently only approved to replace lost school meal benefits from March, April and May of 2020, though Congress is considering an extension of the program in the continuing resolution. However, even in non-pandemic times, Oklahoma families need the flexibility this program provides, rather than asking families to take time off of work during summer breaks and other school closures to take their children to a specific meal site. Congress should act to make this crisis response program a permanent solution to ensure children have reliable access to food when they cannot access school meals. Years of data from the USDA summer pilot program, combined with data from P-EBT, should be more than sufficient evidence for Congress to act.
Because it allows families to purchase the food they need, P-EBT is especially vital to Oklahomans who live in food deserts — urban and rural — because accessing a specific central meal site during school closures can be impossible for working families. As we take stock of the nation’s pandemic response, we should ensure Congress recognizes and continues P-EBT’s effects by extending the program. In addition to talking to members of Congress, using your personal or professional platform to share information about P-EBT can ensure Oklahomans will be able to use this program to support their family budgets and local economies.
Please visit www.hungerfreeok.org/pebt to learn more about the P-EBT program, find answers to frequently asked questions, and to find resources to help spread the word about P-EBT.
Policy and Government Relations Manager
Hunger Free Oklahoma