More than 717,000, or more than 1 in 4 Ohio children no longer have access to free or reduced-priced meals that had been offered during the school day prior to the COVID-19 epidemic. Since all Ohio schools have been closed since March 16 in response to the pandemic, these children and their families have endured three weeks and counting without consistent access to this critical nutrition support. Although the Ohio Department of Education and school districts across the state have stepped up to offer daily grab-and-go meals to many students, only a minority of eligible children are being served.
One in 4 Ohio children no longer have access to free or reduced-priced meals that had been offered during the school day prior to the COVID-19 epidemic.
As part of its initial response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress authorized a temporary program called “Pandemic EBT” (P-EBT) for schools that close for at least five consecutive days during a public health emergency. All children who would have received free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program are eligible for P-EBT. This includes all children in approximately 1,000 “community eligibility” schools in Ohio where all children receive free school meals. The child’s P-EBT allotment will be equal to the federal reimbursement rate for breakfast and lunch at the “free” rate, which is approximately $114 per child per month. States can operate a P-EBT program and non-congregate meal distributions (i.e. “grab-and-go” meals) simultaneously during pandemic-related school closings.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued P-EBT guidance on March 20 which laid out requirements for state plan approval. States must make P-EBT available to school children whose families already participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as those who don’t. Current SNAP households will receive P-EBT benefits as a supplemental issuance on their existing EBT cards. For children in non-SNAP households, the state’s SNAP agency – the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) – will need to set up a new “P-EBT case” in the Ohio Benefits eligibility system so that benefits can be issued. Ideally, ODJFS will be able to get most, if not all, of this information from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), the agency that administers the National School Lunch Program in Ohio.
As of Monday, April 13, two states – Michigan and Rhode Island – have been approved to operate Pandemic EBT programs. An additional eight to 10 states have submitted plans to the USDA and are awaiting approval, including Arizona, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New York and Oregon.  Some of these states are similar to Ohio in that the necessary student data lives at the school district level, not at the state level. This is a logistical challenge that they, and we, can certainly overcome. Ohio needs to get moving.
Both ODJFS and ODE are to be commended for their decisive action since the beginning of the pandemic.
Both ODJFS and ODE are to be commended for their decisive action since the beginning of the pandemic, requesting a range of waivers from the USDA to get nutrition assistance to Ohioans in need as quickly as possible. We encourage ODJFS and ODE to take the next big step by working together as quickly as possible to get a Pandemic EBT program up and running in Ohio.