Hundreds of thousands of California children could lose pandemic food benefits if their caretakers don’t spend the money, a new state audit found, and the California Department of Social Services is in a race to find those families.
During school closures in response to COVID-19, the federal government authorized special payments to families with children who were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals to help address rampant food insecurity in the U.S. The benefits are designed to help pay for food for children stuck at home during the pandemic without access to school cafeterias.
Largely due to delays in congressional legislation, California started issuing significantly delayed payments for most of the 2020-2021 school year and all of summer 2021, California state auditor Elaine Howle wrote in the report released Thursday.
Unless California officials conduct “additional outreach, some households could also miss out on payments for school year 2020-21, summer 2021, and any future school years,” Howle wrote.
About 500,000 of the 3.4 million pandemic electronic benefit transfer cards — or P-EBT cards — have not been used at all as of last month, adding up to $182 million in food benefits. Of those, 174,000 never even made it to the families.
Thousands of children from low-income families may have gone hungry as a result. The benefits expire after 365 days, and these unused cards are from the 2019-2020 school year, so some of the money is likely unusable already.
“Delivering these payments promptly is critical to helping children experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic,” Howle wrote.
California officials agreed with the audit’s recommendation that it should identify which schools those children attend and work with administrators to notify families with unused cards.
The initial P-EBT payments in March through September of 2020 were $57 to $120 a month for each school-age child. After September, P-EBT expanded to include not just students, but also children under 6 receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. In 2020-2021, about 4.5 million California children were eligible for P-EBT.
Californians say they often can’t feed their children enough
Over those first seven months of P-EBT, families had to wait an average of 30 days for their payment — meaning a payment intended for the month of April would likely arrive around the end of the month. From October 2020 through January 2021, families waited an average of more than 29 weeks to get payments for their children’s meals. For students 6 and up, the wait time was nearly 38 weeks on average.
The delays likely contributed to food insecurity. The audit found that an average of 27 percent of Californians responding to the Census Bureau from June 2020 to June 2021 said they sometimes or often couldn’t afford to feed their children enough.
Some of the people receiving P-EBT certainly fell into this category: For the 2021-2022 school year, a child in a family of three is eligible for reduced-price lunches if their annual household income was $40,182 or less; that child would be eligible for free lunches if their annual household income was $28,236 or less.
The audit found that most of the delays were due to failures at the federal level — late legislation by Congress and subsequent unclear guidelines and burdensome requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program.
For example, at one point, the USDA forced California social service officials to delay P-EBT implementation while it retrieved more detailed information about whether more than 10,000 schools had or had not resumed in-person learning.
Currently, the audit said, the California Department of Social Services believes that families with kids under 6 will finally receive payments for February through March of last school year this November.