Colorado’s state government has paid the parents of 306,000 low-income kids an estimated $300 million this summer to make up for meals children did not receive at school during times of remote learning last school year – $100 million more than the state had anticipated.
And more than $200 million is still to come from the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, program — a large-scale attempt by the government to alleviate the dramatic increases in hunger that Colorado and the nation saw during the pandemic.
“Anecdotally, we have seen a decrease in demand for help with emergency food since P-EBT started in May,” said Teva Sienicki, CEO of the Denver anti-hunger group Metro Caring.
“We’ve definitely seen some pressure taken off of families, frankly. They’ve been able to go out and go to the grocery stores and purchase their kids’ favorite foods and not have to make appointments and stand in line for charitable food around town,” Sienicki added.
The payments, which must be spent on non-prepared food such as groceries, were created by Congress at the onset of the pandemic as schools moved to remote learning.
The money comes from the federal government but implementation fell on states. Logistical issues slowed the federal rollout; Colorado began sending retroactive payments in late May, after the school year ended.
“This is an extraordinarily complex program and overall I’d say we’re experiencing some success,” said Karla Maraccini, director of food and energy assistance at the Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees the program. “Getting (that money) out the door to families who can use that to purchase healthy food for their children is a really big deal.”
The agency estimated the P-EBT program would cost $200 million. Instead, it cost about $300 million over three payments – in late May, late June and late July. Eligibility depended on whether students would have received free or reduced-price meals at school — including children of people who are in the U.S. without legal permission.
Coming in the form of EBT cards (which are also used for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the government paid $6.82 for each day of remote learning, or about $136 per month and $1,224 per child for a nine-month school year. For students who participated in hybrid learning, the average rate was $82 per month, or $737 for the school year.
“We’re still seeing crisis levels when it comes to hunger and those are higher among Coloradans of color and families with children,” said Anya Rose, public policy manager at Hunger Free Colorado. “We are hearing that these P-EBT benefits are really crucial. For some families, they’re the only forms of pandemic relief that they’ve received. That’s especially true of immigrant families.”
In late fall, researchers at the University of Colorado-Denver will publish a report on the impact of P-EBT payments, Maraccini said.
“I would be shocked if we find any intentional fraud in this program. We did have a situation where a number of households who were no longer technically eligible for the benefit did end up getting it. We notified (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) that that occurred. We have not yet received any guidance from them on next steps,” Maraccini added.
The three-payment approach was meant not only to help the state stop errant payments or fraud, but also to prevent a one-time run on Colorado grocery stores that would leave shelves bare. A spokesperson for King Soopers said the grocer’s data doesn’t allow it to determine if it sold more food after P-EBT payments were mailed out.
Two sets of P-EBT payments are still to come. In late August, the state will send an estimated $70 million to the parents of 70,000 children under the age of six, if those parents qualify for SNAP benefits.
And because Congress extended P-EBT into the summer months during the pandemic, the state will send an estimated $150 million to the parents of 401,000 kids later this year. The state’s plan has not yet been approved by the USDA, so it’s not known when those payments will go out. Anti-hunger advocates have pushed for a summer EBT program for many years, according to Rose.
Taken together, the payments amount to $520 million to Colorado parents for food since May.
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