Summer food benefits for low-income Missouri children likely to be delayed until well into winter • Missouri Independent

Jennifer Sheils logs into her online portal for Missouri food benefits every day, refreshing the screen with the hope that the state’s deposit of approximately $1,500 in supplemental summer grocery assistance has arrived.

For months, Sheils, a mother of five in St. Charles, has waited without a clear timeline from the state, except the guarantee of officials that the benefits would be disbursed later this year. He has struggled to make ends meet.

Now, the state says, he could be waiting until next year to receive benefits.

The federally funded COVID relief program, called Summer Pandemic EBT, is designed to retroactively help families cover summer food costs. The program provides grocery benefits of $391 for each child who qualified for subsidized school lunches during the previous academic year and for children under the age of 6 who qualify for SNAP. Four of Sheils’ children are in school and qualify for free meals, making them eligible for the one-time benefit.

Missouri’s plan to distribute the aid was passed by the federal government on October 19, after all but five states had been approved.

By this time, many states had finished distributing the benefits. By the end of September, for example, Kentucky and Tennessee had already finished issuing benefits. Arkansas concluded in mid-October. In Oklahoma, all benefits were provided in July and October.

Each additional month without the benefit, Sheils said, “things kind of snowball.”

In the fall, Sheils’ family had to divert money from utility bills to groceries, narrowly avoiding being disconnected. Last month, his family couldn’t pay his credit card bill.

Sheils worries about her ability to afford Christmas presents for her children, or even the ingredients to bake Christmas cookies.

If the food benefits had been issued closer to the summer, Sheils said, her family wouldn’t be in such a precarious position.

“Yes [the benefits] If he had been there when he needed him, he wouldn’t have had to do things like use credit cards,” he said.

“I don’t think people understand that everything is some kind of composite.”

series of delays

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Jennifer Sheils pictured with three of her five children, who are 10, 13 and 15 years old. Sheils is still waiting to receive food benefits designed to provide relief last summer. Meanwhile, her expenses are snowballing. (Photo sent)

Due to a number of delays, benefits designed to help families with summer food costs may not be distributed until well into winter.

In the state planSubmitted to the federal government in October, Missouri officials predicted that families would begin receiving benefits “by the end of 2022 or sooner.”

Now, the state is urging schools to start submitting eligibility data by the end of the year, the first of several steps in delivering benefits. That’s a timeline that doesn’t seem likely to allow most benefits to be issued this year.

The benefits program, Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), is a federally funded pandemic relief program that includes not only summer benefits for low-income children and students, but also a program for benefits for academic year.

The school year benefits are more specifically targeted at low-income students who missed school due to COVID-19 and therefore missed out on subsidized meals. The benefit is prorated based on the number of COVID-related absences.

state have to have an approved school year plan to submit a summer plan, and Missouri’s 2021-2022 school year plan was not approved until June. The federal government approved the state’s summer plan on October 19, after the state was told to resubmit it for leaving out children under the age of 6.

At the time, Missouri was one of six states that had not yet been approved for the summer program.

The state cited administrative obstacles to data sharing between departments and delays caused by the need to build a new data collection portal. Prior to this year, the state “did not have a mechanism to collect student absence data,” which delayed the distribution of benefits, said Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The state estimates that it will grant benefits to 454,000 schoolchildren and close to 158,000 children under 6 years of age, according to the plan submitted to the federal government.

The “exact timeline for when families will receive a P-EBT benefit” is unknown, but it could be “as soon” as the end of 2022, McGowin said.. a department of education Press release for families last week included the same message.

That timeline is less certain than the one McGowin gave in October, before the state plan was approved, that “families should start receiving benefits by the end of 2022.”

Asked if it’s fair to predict that most children won’t receive their benefits before 2023, McGowin said he “won’t make any predictions” and reiterated that the exact timeline is unknown.

Officials cited many of the same reasons for the possible delay that they mentioned above, particularly technological ones. This is the first year that the program is run by the education department instead of social services.

The construction of a new online portal is required to send data “secure a contract with a supplier,” McGowin said. Then the education department needed to test the new system in October and November. Previously, the education department was delayed because they did not have the data for children under 6 years old required for their plan and needed to get it from the department of social services, which contributed to “A delay in final USDA approval that pushed our schedule back a bit,” McGowin said.

the Press release released last week, provided some of the first public guidance for families regarding this year’s program.

For months, families had received little communication from the state regarding P-EBT benefits or when they would disperse, which advocates say led some to mistakenly believe benefits had been lost. Advocates from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which has a public benefits division, and Operation Food Search, which is a hunger relief advocacy group, both noticed an influx in calls this fall from people concerned about losing their P-EBT benefits.

‘Depending on how quickly schools submit the data’

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After schools compile the data on the department of education portal, the data must be sent to the department of social services for processing and distribution of benefits. For those without existing P-EBT cards, the process to receive benefits may take longer. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In its letter to school districtsthe education department urged them to “be prepared to start sending eligible students for P-EBT by the end of December 2022.”

The compilation of absence data may require schools to resolve complex eligibility questions. Even a single day of absence due to COVID qualifies a low-income child to receive an additional $21.30 in meal benefits, according to the letter’s guidance, so schools will need to ensure absences are coded correctly for the year past. Districts vary in the mechanisms they used to track COVID-related absences, according to a training video released by the education department, which also includes instructions for districts that did not track COVID-related absences at all.

“Depending on how quickly schools submit the data and when the information is provided to DSS to process benefits and issue the card,” McGowin added, “families May receive a benefit as soon as the end of 2022.” (original emphasis)

The video teaching schools how to use the data portal has only been available since November 16, with many districts going on winter break in about two weeks. If districts can submit all the data before the end of the month, there is still no guarantee that most benefits will be issued before 2023.

After schools collect the data on the department of education portal, it must go to the department of social services for benefits to be processed and distributed.

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Heather Dolce declined to provide an estimate for how long it will take to disburse those benefits once the information is received by the department.

The benefits “will be loaded as soon as possible to an existing P-EBT card, if available, or to a new P-EBT card that will be issued to the child,” Dolce said.

Issuing a new benefits card could take longer, Dolce added, due to the “additional manual process” required.

Many eligible children did not receive the benefit last year, likely putting them in the more time-consuming category of requiring new cards.

Only about 50% of the 440,000 children predicted to be eligible received summer 2021 P-EBT benefits, according to data provided by the social services agency. Last year, the social services agency ran the program and required participants to sign up with an application. This time, families do not need to apply to receive benefits.

Sheils, the St. Charles mother, applied for summer P-EBT in August of last year for her children, but did not receive benefits until February of this year, after months of follow-up with her children’s schools and the state, said. (DSS emphasizes that this year’s process is “significantly different from previous years.”)

This year’s delays remind Sheils of her struggles getting benefits last year. He is not optimistic that the benefits from him will come in the next few weeks, “unless there is some miracle and the school does what it is supposed to do, and works perfectly.”