Only half of Colorado students eligible for pandemic-related food assistance actually got money set aside for them last school year. Now the same program has been extended and Colorado’s education and human services departments are working double-time to reach more kids who missed meals because the coronavirus upset school schedules.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week blessed the state’s plans for distributing grocery money to low-income Colorado families with school-age kids, delivering a third round of the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, or P-EBT.
P-EBT started last spring as part of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The package was recently extended to cover the 2020-21 academic year, making $200 million in federal funding available to 355,000 eligible low-income public school students who aren’t getting the meals they used to eat at school.
“It did take longer than we anticipated, but we were able to work collaboratively with USDA to finally get that approval, which is our golden ticket now to move forward,” said Karla Maraccini, who directs food and energy assistance for Colorado’s human services department.
Human services said families will receive $136.40 per month for each child learning remotely and $81.84 per month for each child learning in a hybrid model. Children learning in person should have access to meals at school, typically breakfast, lunch and a snack daily.
Benefits will arrive as new bank cards or on existing EBT and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards as soon as late May and will include payments dating back to the start of this school year. The cards work at grocery stores that display “we accept EBT” signs for food-eligible purchases. Tobacco, alcohol and restaurant food meant for immediate consumption are excluded.
More money will make a big difference for people like Carolina Guzman and her family.
Guzman is a mother of three in Eagle, who received P-EBT money last year. She works part-time while her kids go to school, some days in-person and some days from home. She said the benefits especially helped when her husband wasn’t able to work for three months because of the pandemic.
“I hear some families, they say, “Oh, I don’t have a job, I don’t have money,’” she said. “And really, they feel thankful for this help, because it’s the only money they can have.”
A more complicated process than before
Schools shut down toward the end of the 2019-20 academic year, meaning many students were no longer ensured two of their daily meals. Colorado’s education and human services departments opened up applications to families to receive $5.50 per child for each missed day to make up for breakfast and lunch they’d normally eat at school, quickly sending out $50 million in federal dollars to the families of 180,000 children.
“Last year, because the whole nation was building the plane while it was taking off, the way that we rolled it out looks very different than what we’re going to be doing in the next couple of months,” Maraccini said.
This year benefits were increased to $6.82 per day to include a snack.
Schools have also adopted different learning models, meaning distribution won’t be uniform. Some studying online only will receive more money than those in hybrid learning environments that put them in the classroom for some days of the week, when they can access meals. It’s up to the state to determine which students get higher or lower benefits.
“It is far more complicated than it was last year,” Maraccini said. “We had to propose and now have approved the methodology in terms of collecting data from schools about their various closures.”
Brehan Riley, who leads school nutrition for the education department, says the department is helping human services understand the learning models of the 1,875 schools in the state. It will also let families know how they can get the latest benefits.
“We are getting the information from the districts because that’s our direct audience — the school districts — and that will help determine the eligibility for families,” Riley.
The departments will also widen eligibility to include families of eligible students who might have missed applications for the 2020-21 school year. Rollout starts in May and will continue into the summer. Distribution will be staggered to take place across several weeks.
“Now that we do have an approval from USDA,” Maraccini said, “we’ll be working fast and furiously to make sure that benefits are issued as quickly as possible.”
Apply to the P-EBT program here. Children of families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or who qualify for free and reduced meals are eligible for P-EBT benefits.
Hunger Free Colorado runs a website that provides more resources on applying for SNAP and P-EBT benefits. The group can also be reached at their hotline at 855-855-4626.