Ohio families with children have never more desperately needed additional food aid. According to the Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey data, visualized by Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, more than 1 in 4 (28.9 percent) of Ohio households with children experienced food insecurity in December 2020. In addition to lost wages and unstable housing circumstances, many of these families missed out on free or reduced-price school meals as children transitioned back to remote learning due to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 1 in 4 of Ohio households with children experienced food insecurity in December 2020.
As I wrote previously (here and here), Congress created the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) program in March 2020 to ensure low-income children would not miss out on free and reduced-priced meals they had received at school. Thanks to the dedicated staff at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) and Ohio Department of Education (ODE), 872,714 school children received P-EBT benefits from the 2019-2020 school year, delivering $261 million in federal food assistance to struggling Ohio families. Then when the 2020-2021 school year started virtually in many parts of the state, ODJFS and ODE delivered an additional $86 million in P-EBT benefits to approximately 490,000 children in fully-remote learning environments (when school buildings were closed for at least five consecutive days), for August and September 2020.
Just as the program was set to expire on September 30, 2020, Congress extended P-EBT for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year through continuing resolution H.R. 8337. Unfortunately, the federal government did not issue new P-EBT guidance to states until November 16. Exactly one month later, Massachusetts became the first state to receive federal approval to issue P-EBT benefits for the rest of this school year. As of December 22, Ohio was actively working on the development of its own P-EBT plan it intended to submit it for federal approval by the end of 2020. This post will be updated when a federally-approved plan has been finalized and is released to the public.
As of December 22, Ohio was actively working on the development of its own P-EBT plan it intended to submit it for federal approval by the end of 2020.
In early November, The Center for Community Solutions and our partners at the Ohio Association of Food Banks and Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, submitted P-EBT recommendations to ODJFS and ODE for consideration as they developed a comprehensive P-EBT plan for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. Core principles for P-EBT included:
- Get benefits to families as close as possible to when school meals are lost. Families of school-age children have not received P-EBT benefits to cover lost meals since September, despite Congressional authorization for benefits to be distributed in October, November and December. Ohio should issue P-EBT benefits to families for these months as soon as possible. In addition, students attending schools with “hybrid” schedules during August and September, that are now eligible due to changes in federal guidance, should receive benefits for those months as well. After these initial P-EBT benefits are issued, families should get a predictable monthly P-EBT benefit based on the number of missed school meals during the prior month, or an average number applied consistently across the state. The latter approach was adopted by Massachusetts, with fully virtual students set to receive $117 per month and hybrid students receiving $58 per month in P-EBT benefits.
- Increase capacity of Ohio’s P-EBT helpline to handle a high volume of calls from parents. During the first two rounds of P-EBT, Ohio had to cover 50 percent of all administrative costs associated with P-EBT. This was a significant challenge for the state and limited its ability to adequately staff the customer service line that was set up for P-EBT. This led to excessively long wait times for families. Fortunately, for the 2020-2021 school year Congress provided 100 percent of the administrative funding for P-EBT, so ODJFS and ODE should be able to use these new resources to build a highly responsive customer service line with low average wait times.
- Make it easier for families to update their information or troubleshoot problems with ODJFS and ODE. One significant challenge with earlier rounds of P-EBT was schools had outdated address information on file for some students, resulting in P-EBT cards being returned to the state as undeliverable and benefits never reaching eligible children. ODJFS came up with some creative solutions in the middle of implementation to make it easier for families to report new addresses to ODJFS (including an online form), and we hope additional enhancements are made for the next round of P-EBT. Other families were inadvertently left off of P-EBT eligibility lists by their local schools, so we encourage Ohio to come up with a straightforward process for families to resolve these discrepancies.
- Strengthen communication materials to reduce confusion for families. With time and resources to prepare for the next round of P-EBT, we encourage Ohio to build out a more robust set of communication materials, including providing information in additional languages, writing at a more accessible reading level, and utilizing multi-media strategies to publicize P-EBT (e.g. social media, robocalls, text messages, videos). We also learned from other states about the importance of closer coordination with school partners to communicate with families and, when necessary, help distribute P-EBT cards to the hardest-to-reach children. Schools have sophisticated communication mechanisms that could be better leveraged to educate families about P-EBT, answer common questions, update addresses and more.
- Act with urgency to include young children who are now eligible for P-EBT. Through the continuing resolution that became law on October 1, 2020, Congress expanded P-EBT to include children under age 6 residing in SNAP households who are missing meals they would have received in child care settings before pandemic-related closures and capacity reductions. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (signed into law on December, 27, 2020) further simplified implementation of the program by deeming all young children enrolled in SNAP eligible for P-EBT if they live in an area affected by school or child care closures, without requiring paperwork from families. This likely includes most, if not all, of the approximately 220,000 young children in Ohio who are enrolled in SNAP. Unfortunately, federal guidance still has not been issued to states on how to expand P-EBT to this group of children, despite these children being the most vulnerable to lifelong consequences from hunger in early childhood, and we encourage both USDA and Ohio to move swiftly to get P-EBT benefits to eligible families as quickly as possible.