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Millions of dollars unclaimed in last year’s child food assistance program, days before expiration

    (Alyssa Schukar for Feeding America)
(Alyssa Schukar for Feeding America)

Cindy González

Nebraska ExaminerLINCOLN – Nebraska families have yet to claim as much as $6.6 million in grocery assistance spent last year under a child-targeted food program – and there are just days left to tap the money before they return to the federal government.

The amount left on the table comes from a federal program launched during the COVID-19 pandemic to help feed low-income youth during the time they were out of school.

The program is known as P-EBT, or Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, and is a precursor to the similar but separate Summer EBT program that has attracted extensive attention in Nebraska because Governor Jim Pillen initially refused to accept federal food assistance for children. .

The expiration date is looming

Here is the status of last year’s funding, according to public data obtained from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services: As of September 2023, nearly $17 million in federal food assistance benefits were issued for the P-EBT program. About 140,000 eligible Nebraska youth would have received $120 each, loaded onto wallet-sized plastic “electronic benefit transfer” cards.

Such cards are essentially used as debit cards to pay for food at participating grocery stores.

As of the end of April, state records show $6.6 million had yet to be consulted or spent. That amounts to approximately 55,000 students who have not used their cards.

An expiration date is looming.

If cards are not activated within 274 days of issue, benefits will expire. The bulk of Nebraska’s 2023 summer P-EBT cards were issued on September 12 and 14, DHHS said, so the money expires on June 14 and June 16, respectively.

A small portion of the cards were issued on September 28 and expire on June 30.

The 274-day count starts again when a family makes a purchase. So if a family were to make a purchase this week, they would have more time to use the rest of the card’s benefits, DHHS said.

Why not tagged?

Reasons the free grocery assistance has gone unclaimed may range from families’ lack of awareness or understanding, to cards being sent to former addresses, to families choosing not to participate, say those familiar with the program.

“That’s a pretty high percentage. It shows that there is still a lot of work to be done to spread the message to the community.”

– Eric Savaiano, Nebraska Appleseed Economic Justice Manager, Food Access and Nutrition

Nebraska DHHS spokesman Jeff Powell said in a statement that the state agency cannot speculate on why families have not used the money provided to them. But he added: “The amount of unused benefits is not unusual for federal benefits like these.

He said the department is “reaching households whose benefits may be cut.” The statement did not elaborate on the type of outreach, or what the results have been so far.

To raise awareness of the federal pandemic program, Powell said, DHHS had issued press releases and created a page on its website. Information included eligibility and frequently asked questions. He said schools were also providing information to eligible families.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program aimed to provide benefits to children who qualified for free or reduced-price meals through their schools and who lost access to food due to school closures and modified class schedules .

Children who receive SNAP benefits or other government assistance would see the pandemic grocery assistance added to existing EBT cards. Other eligible households that do not receive this type of government assistance would receive a card through the US Postal Service.

Shocking

The number of unclaimed EBT benefits for 2023 even surprised Eric Savaiano of Nebraska Appleseed, who works on food and nutrition initiatives. He and Appleseed helped lead an initiative this year to raise awareness among Nebraskans about the Summer EBT program.

“That’s a pretty high percentage,” Savaiano said of the money unclaimed from the pandemic grocery aid. “It shows that there is still more work to be done to spread the message to the community.”

Savaiano suspects the main reason for not using the shopping tool is ignorance, although some may choose not to participate. For example, he said, some families may have received a card because they are on a school site that provides free and reduced lunches based on community needs and not necessarily individual family income.

State Sen. Jen Day, who led a letter-writing campaign among lawmakers to push for Nebraska’s participation in the 2024 summer EBT program, agreed with DHHS that unspent benefits are typical of public assistance programs.

But she hopes the state will continue to strive for better efficiency in reaching those in need, including families whose first language is not English.

“We need to work on streamlining the application process and making it more efficient,” she said.

Other states

Unclaimed funds in the previous youth-focused pandemic grocery aid program provide useful lessons for this summer’s EBT program, which was recently launched, says David Rubel, a New York City-based consultant who has researched pandemic EBT use and unspent funds in other states, as well as Nebraska.

Rubel sought public data from several states, including Nebraska. His research also found that by summer 2022, about 30% of grocery cards issued to Nebraska residents expired, leaving millions of dollars unused. That unused share of cards was a larger share than in the five other states he looked at that year.

This year, Nebraska was one of the first states to begin providing benefits for the Summer EBT 2024 program. Participating families in the current program have 122 days to spend the full amount of $120 per child. Any money not spent by day 123 will be automatically deleted.

Given the large number of families who have not taken advantage of previous benefits, Rubel recommends that states undertake publicity campaigns to ensure maximum use and to highlight the 122-day spend-or-lose rule. He said school districts are critical because they typically have text, email and most up-to-date family contact information.

Rubel said, “Summer EBT – with the potential of $21 million for struggling families in Nebraska – is an opportunity to right the ship.”

Current Summer EBT Program

In the current Summer EBT program, DHHS estimates that 175,000 students or 80,000 households will qualify for the grocery benefits.

Eligible families will receive $40 per child per month, or a total of $120 per child, for the summer term.

DHHS has created a Summer EBT website page that contains “a wealth of information,” Powell said. The outreach plan includes social media campaigns, press releases and information for additional resources as part of Pillen’s “Nebraska Solution” plan.

He said eligible families should also receive a letter from the Nebraska Department of Education about participation. So far this summer, DHHS has provided benefits to 130,148 eligible children.

“Further issuances are planned throughout the summer for additional children eligible for the program,” he said.

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