State officials begin distributing summer food funding for kids — five months late

By: - October 6, 2022 6:01 am
A Metro Nashville Public Schools bus. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A Metro Nashville Public Schools bus. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Nearly three months into the school year, state officials will finally start distributing funds from a federal food program meant to feed families during the summer.

When the COVID pandemic led to shuttered schools, federally-funded COVID-19 relief programs allowed children who relied on schools to feed them to continue having meals at home. 

Of these programs, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) proved especially helpful, said nutrition advocates, since families received funds for each eligible child for each day of school missed due to the pandemic. And after the school year ended, families continued to receive assistance through the Summer P-EBT program.

For some families, P-EBT and Summer P-EBT allowed them to afford fresh fruits and vegetables for the first time, said Signe Anderson, the director of nutrition advocacy for the Tennessee Justice Center. They also allowed vulnerable families access to free and accessible meals throughout the pandemic. 

But once again, Tennessee is late in distributing Summer P-EBT funds.

“Summer P-EBT should be available in the summer. Summer is in the name. And it’s supposed to be a support to help families to eat, and families need to put food on the table today, not wait for months until funding becomes available,” said Anderson. 

The delays are nothing new. 

P-EBT first became available in 2020 through the CARES Act.  After receiving federal guidance, states submitted a distribution plan to the federal government for approval and funds reached families by the end of summer. Summer P-EBT did not become available until 2021. 

In 2020, Tennessee applied for P-EBT and was approved in May by the federal government before making funds available in June

While some states were able to quickly hand out funds through EBT cards, Tennessee required families — many of whom were already approved for school lunch programs — to apply, creating an extra hurdle. The application requirement was later removed. The New York Times noted in 2020 that many Southern states with high rates of child hunger were slow to distribute the funds.

In 2021, Tennessee was approved for Summer P-EBT in June but delayed distribution until September.

This year, the Tennessee Department of Human Services announced on Sept. 30 the distribution of Summer P-EBT, nearly four months since the summer first started. This year, more than 600,000 children will receive Summer P-EBT funds, according to TDHS spokesperson Devin Stone. 

Families will be receiving $391 per child to be used for food purchases at stores that accept EBT.

The TDHS  has blamed technical difficulties in compiling data on eligible children, which involved communication with school districts across the state. The TDHS also coordinates with the Tennessee Department of Education to receive the necessary information from schools on which families are eligible. 

Delays in distribution have real-world consequences, Anderson added.

“Families are struggling to make ends meet. I would think we would do better, especially by summer,” she said. 

For the 2021-2022 school year, most schools were back in session, and while P-EBT was no longer used as often as in the prior year, children could still receive funds if they missed school for pandemic-related reasons. 

But more importantly, said Anderson, Tennessee needed to continue applying for P-EBT during the school year in order to be eligible for Summer P-EBT, which allows families continued access to food outside of school programming. This year, the USDA released guidance in April for states to put together their plans for Summer P-EBT. 

Tennessee is also currently reviewing federal guidance to apply for P-EBT for the 2022-2023 school year. Tennessee must be approved for P-EBT during the 2022-2023 school year in order to be eligible for Summer P-EBT in 2023. 

After next year, P-EBT and Summer P-EBT may no longer be available, but federal officials are seeking to make the program permanent. 

Last week, the Biden administration hosted the Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health and invited nutrition advocacy groups from Tennessee to devise strategies for ending hunger, improving access to nutrition and physical activity and closing the disparities that prevent vulnerable groups from accessing government programs.

Tennessee advocates took the opportunity to praise pandemic-related food programs for having lessened the effects of food insecurity for thousands of families, seniors and other vulnerable populations. 

“I hope (P-EBT) will be permanent,” said Anderson. 

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.

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