August 19, 2020
At the beginning of March, I joined FRAC’s child nutrition team as a Bill Emerson Hunger Fellow. Two weeks later, schools across the country were closing, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and my team started working to ensure students and their families had access to meals during this unprecedented time. Schools and community partners started offering meals through a variety of models, but families needed more. In its second response package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Congress authorized the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program.
P-EBT provides nutritional resources to families who have lost access to free or reduced-price school meals due to pandemic-related school closures. Through P-EBT, states issue participating families an EBT card with the value of a free school breakfast and lunch (approximately $5.70 per day) based on the number of days the school was closed due to COVID-19 at the end of the 2019–2020 school year. So if a school was closed for four weeks, that’s approximately $114 dollars. These benefits add up and provide much-needed support to families.
Much of my time at FRAC has been spent working with advocates to ensure that all states adopt this new program. I am excited to report that every state now has an approved P-EBT plan. Strong outreach and communications have been critical to ensure that families are aware of the program and can access benefits quickly.
To support this effort, FRAC created a comprehensive communications toolkit, which includes a shared repository of outreach materials and tools, to help states and advocates develop state-specific resources and to share best practices and ideas. FRAC and its partners are doubling down on efforts to ensure that all eligible families access P-EBT.
While each state’s plan functions differently, outreach is critical, especially over the next few weeks since states must issue benefits by September 30. Here are some tips for ensuring that eligible families access this critical support.
- Use channels of communication that are already in place during COVID-19 to get the word out to engage partners.For example, in Michigan, Detroit Town Halls had already begun during the pandemic, so they were an excellent trusted source for families to find out important information about P-EBT. In Ohio, the First Lady and state baseball mascots partnered to promote P-EBT in this video.
- Ensure the state’s P-EBT website includes thorough information about the program and the process to access benefits. Make sure that all materials are available in as many languages as possible with clear access to translation services over the phone. Texas has a great website that directly translates the page into Spanish. Literacy level should be taken into account and an important strategy is to allow families to gain information and apply over the phone (if applicable).
- Continue to spread the word about the program throughout the entire process of implementation. Update website FAQs to include the date of the last update, which will be helpful in the event of questions occurring frequently through customer service or as local issues arise. Minnesota made sure to update questions as issues of access to post offices came up in Minneapolis. Schools should proactively communicate with families about the program, including how to apply (if applicable) and how to use the benefit. Back-to-school communications (whether virtual or in person) provide a great opportunity to share the latest on P-EBT. Oregon has some comprehensive examples of sample social media and text messages that are directed at eligible families.
FRAC and its partners are working to make improvements and extend P-EBT through December 2021 in order to allow families to receive benefits through the summer and during any additional times when an outbreak forces schools to close and people must practice social distancing. Two recent evaluations have highlighted the value of P-EBT:
- Effect of Pandemic EBT on Measures of Food Hardship by the Brookings Institution, which found that P-EBT reduced food hardship on families with children; and
- Pandemic EBT: “It has Meant Everything,” A Snapshot of Michigan’s Pandemic EBT Program explores the impact of P-EBT in Michigan.
P-EBT is a vital program that has met the needs of many children who rely on school meals during the school year, but because the pandemic is not yet over, the need for P-EBT is still real and critical.