Funds for summer food program not reaching Tennessee families

(Photo: Laura Olivas/Getty Images)
(Photo: Laura Olivas/Getty Images)

Summer food programs have become a necessity for families experiencing unemployment under COVID-19, but an emergency program approved for Tennessee families hasn’t reached them yet.

Lakeisha Johnson has one of those families. The last few months have been difficult for her and her three children. The single mother from Memphis had to console her youngest daughter over missing school and birthday celebration.Her oldest daughter couldn’t celebrate her graduation. But comforting her daughters was difficult since Johnson and her adult son had both lost their jobs due to the pandemic. They had no other income. 

“Right now this world is going through some things in 2020, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Johnson.

Johnson had never been on welfare and feared the negative connotation but out of desperation she contacted U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen’s office who was able to connect Johnson’s family to welfare programs and the Tennessee Justice Center. 

“You have people like myself everyday go to work but something is preventing you from going to work, like this virus. We can’t control that,” said Johnson.

Tennessee applied for P-EBT on April 16 and was approved May 20, and the program was expected to reach 663,000, or 66% of children in participating schools, but families haven’t been able to have access to the funds.

Tennessee Justice Center (TJC) kept her updated on Pandemic-EBT(P-EBT), an emergency program rolled out with the CARES Act in mid-March and designed to continue feeding qualifying children from schools closed due to the pandemic. Qualifying families will receive $250.80 per child (as determined by the daily cost of school breakfast and lunch in Tennessee) and can access the funds through an EBT card normally allocated for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a separate food program for families living on the poverty line.

Spokesperson Signe Anderson said they have received hundreds of calls from families inquiring about P-EBT and complaining of struggles compounded by COVID-19 such as lack of childcare, which forces families to reduce work hours and wages and therefore making their household financial situation worse. 

States needed to submit a plan on how to reach qualifying families. Tennessee applied for P-EBT on April 16 and was approved May 20, and the program was expected to reach 663,000, or 66% of children in participating schools, but families haven’t been able to have access to the funds.

“I’m not sure why it’s taking so long,” said Anderson, Director of Nutrition Advocacy at TJC.

Representative Mike Stewart questions the delays in a period where families are “under extreme economic stress because of this COVID-19 crisis” and adds that several states have already distributed the EBT cards to families. 

According to the New York Times, southern states have been slow to reach families.

Both Stewart and Anderson both penned letters to government officials to expedite the program and relate the struggles of families who don’t qualify for other summer food programs.

“These families can’t wait until July. They need P-EBT now,” writes Anderson.

According to TJC, most summer food programs reach about 10-15% children and P-EBT can bridge the gap, but states had to figure out how to get the funds to families. Departments waived requirements that children needed to eat together and participate in educational activities to minimize exposure to COVID-19. Parents who were previously unable to pick up meals at assigned times due to work-time restrictions may now pick up several meals at once. The complication lies with families that qualify for P-EBT may not qualify for SNAP, but need EBT cards attained through SNAP in order to access P-EBT.

“We have children out there that are food insecure and they’re not getting these EBT cards with the money that Congress allocated. We need to stop the delays and get the money out the door now,“ said Stewart.

Rep. Mike Stewart, Chair, Tennessee House Democratic Caucus (Official photo, Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Mike Stewart, Chair, Tennessee House Democratic Caucus (Official photo, Tennessee General Assembly)

The Tennessee Department of Human Services (TDHS) said they’re working on finalizing details and plans to issue P-EBT benefits within the month. Tennesseans who do not receive SNAP benefits but still qualify for P-EBT will need to apply once the application process is opened.

Although the hotel where Johnson works has reopened, she was told by her supervisor that the hotel has only 15 guests and there isn’t enough work for her. She believes P-EBT will get her and her family through the crisis until she is able to go back to work. 

“I know that there’s steps needed to be taken but I hope that they hurry up,” said Johnson.

In the meantime, she says it’s important to send emails to the officials and organizations who helped her family. 

“Sometimes we complain so much that we forget to say thanks,” said Johnson.