Ensuring that children received proper nutrition was one of the many challenges that COVID brought. In the 2019-2020 school year, over 710,000 K-12 Ohio students were eligible to receive a free or reduced lunch and breakfast. Meals were provided directly to students when they were physically in school. Once schools closed during the pandemic, many districts developed alternative methods for feeding students, but food did not always reach those students who typically rely on school meals. Fortunately, during the national health emergency, Ohio applied for and received approval to administer Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT).
P-EBT provided each child with $6.82 to purchase food for every day they learned remotely.
P-EBT provided each child with $6.82 to purchase food for every day they learned remotely. If a child’s family was enrolled in SNAP, the benefit was added to their family’s existing EBT card. For children who were not enrolled in SNAP, cards were mailed to each child and loaded with funds to be used according to federal guidelines. The initial cards were mailed to families in November 2020 as a one-time benefit. They included funds to cover the months of March, April, and May 2020.
COVID infection and hospitalization rates increased causing the health emergency to be extended. P-EBT was also extended as many schools opted to remain fully or partially remote for the 2020-2021 school year. A second card was issued for each child in February of 2021. These cards included a letter indicating that families should keep their cards, as they would be reloaded with benefits on a monthly basis, similar to the existing SNAP model. The same private vendor that manages the SNAP Ohio EBT cards, Conduent, was selected to manage the P-EBT cards.
My three children attended a Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) school for the 2019-2020 and the 2020-2021 school year. CMSD qualifies for the community eligibility provision which means all students are eligible for the free and reduced program, regardless of family income. CMSD schools were remote from March 2020 to May 2021 and reopened under a hybrid schedule mid-May 2021. We received one card for each child in November, and another card for each child in February. Beginning in March, I received a letter each month from Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) that a new benefit amount had been loaded onto each of my children’s cards.
Activating and using the cards has been challenging.
Activating and using the cards has been challenging. Before the EBT card can be used to make purchases, it must be activated and a PIN selected. To do this you call a customer service number listed on the back of the card. You are led through some prompts, including a prompt to enter the last 4 digits of your child’s social security number. At this point, you should ignore the recorded instructions and prompts, because you are actually supposed to enter the birth year of the child and NOT the last 4 digits of their social security number. If you follow the verbal directions, you will not succeed. The alternate directions are included in a quarter sheet of paper that, hopefully, you held onto when you first received and opened the envelope.
My family has been very fortunate during the past 18 months. Both my spouse and I have maintained full employment, and no one on in our immediate family contracted the virus nor experienced any other major illness. We have had no disruption in income and have not had a pressing need to use our P-EBT cards. We did, however, successfully activate and use each of the cards we received for at least one purchase. A few weeks ago, I decided to check the balance on each of the cards. This process proved to be surprisingly difficult to navigate. I called the customer service number on the back of my card and was able to check the balances. Because I had not used any of the three cards in months, I was surprised to learn the balance was quite low and did not seem to include the allotments that I had been receiving mailings about.
My first step was to visit the ODJFS website, which has a specific page for P-EBT. While the page has a lot of information, it did not have instructions on what to do if you believe the balance on your card is incorrect. It does have a customer service line, so I called that line. The person I spoke with asked for my child’s name, and was able to confirm that the benefit allotment was much higher than my card balance. She could not, however, help me figure out how to get the allotment added to the card. For that, I would need to call Conduent using the customer service number printed on the card.
I dialed the card vendor and listened through the prompts. By pressing three I could find out when the next benefit allotment would become available. I pressed three and was directed to call the ODJFS phone number, the very line that had directed me to Conduent. I called ODJFS back. This time the phone representative (the same one I spoke with earlier) suggested I try to speak with a representative from Conduent. This is not an option available given on the recorded phone prompts. The ODJFS representative provided me with the steps to reach someone in person, which are also the steps to report a lost or stolen card.
I struggle to find the words to describe these instructions which she gave me verbally, however I found the following on the ODJFS P-EBT page:
To speak with a live Customer Service Representative to request a P-EBT replacement card when the family does not recall the 16-digit P-EBT card number:
- Press Option 4 – To report card lost, stolen or damaged
- Prompt asks to enter your SSN (P-EBT caller MUST enter: 9 digits. 0 + child’s DOB)
- Prompt asks to enter your DOB (P-EBT caller MUST enter child’s DOB: 2 digits for month\2 digits for day\4 digits for the year)
- When prompted to enter your PIN, Do Nothing
- When prompted to enter your PIN the 2nd time, Do Nothing.
- This will allow the call to be escalated in order to speak with a live Customer Service Representative
At every step, you must ignore what the prompts are telling you and do something completely different.
At every step, you must ignore what the prompts are telling you and do something completely different. I made it through the bizarre instructions. When I got to step 6, instead of a person, I received a recording that, “if [my] call [was] regarding P-EBT,[they would] not be able to assist me” and that “all customer service representatives [were] busy”, then the call was disconnected. After banging my head on my desk (figuratively), I resolved to call again the next morning.
The next morning, I called again, followed the instructions, and finally reached a live person at Conduent. I read off each of my children’s cards to her and she let me know the balance, which was still lower than what I believed it should be. She suggested I call ODJFS. I let her know that I had, and that that was how I was directed to her. She then offered to look up my children by name instead of by card number. This was the key. Upon searching by name, she found that each of my three children had hundreds of P-EBT funds available that had not been allocated to either of the two cards I had received for each child (that’s six cards total).
She said a third card must have been mailed and lost. From what I understand about the program, the existence of a third set of cards did not seem likely. The cards I received in February were supposed to be kept so they could be re-loaded. I never reported any card lost or stolen. I checked in with multiple other families from my children’s school, and all had received two cards with benefits uploaded each month on the second card. She offered to cancel out the mysterious lost third set of cards and re-issue a new fourth set of cards for each child (now I have a total of nine cards).
As I went through this experience, I could not help but recall a paper written by my colleague Rachel Cahill that suddenly felt very relevant to my personal life.
As I went through this experience, I could not help but recall a paper written by my colleague Rachel Cahill that suddenly felt very relevant to my personal life. Earlier this summer, Rachel wrote about the upcoming procurement process for a private sector vendor to manage the EBT cards. Recommendations were provided to the state to consider as they engage in the procurement process:
- Hold EBT vendors accountable for customer service standards.
- Improve EBT card issuance and mailing processes.
- Revise EBT Card replacement process.
Was my experience a Muttillo family glitch, or are other Ohio families missing out on hundreds of very needed P-EBT dollars? If your child received a P-EBT card and you do not believe you received the full allotment, follow the instructions detailed above and ask the Conduent representative to look your child up by name, instead of number. The benefits on the card are available for 12 months from the month they were allotted. Even if you do not need the benefits now, consider them a backup plan in case of job loss, reduced hours or prolonged illness. These benefits can mean the difference between poor and good nutrition for thousands of children in the state.