More than half of New York students who eat School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program meals pay a fraction or none of the cost based on their families’ income, making school meals a critical source of nutrition in their diets. When schools shuttered in March of 2020, roughly 2 million students across the state were left wondering where their next meal would come from, a problem that persists this school year.
Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) can help fill the meal gap for students in our state. With P-EBT, families can purchase groceries for the school days their children are at home. But, to protect children from hunger, the federal program must be rolled out effectively and efficiently.
Last school year, New York issued $884 million in P-EBT benefits to the 2.1 million students who regularly receive free or reduced-price meals. New York’s initial roll-out of the program was successful in several ways. Many schools across the state already provided free meals through the community eligibility provision (CEP), meaning a greater number of students qualified for P-EBT than otherwise would have. The state automatically issued the benefit, rather than require families to enroll, and families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were able to quickly get the funds. But there remains considerable room for reform this year.
To improve implementation in the 2020-21 school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently published guidance. Below is our analysis of how USDA requirements for state plans could impact New York’s roll-out.
Components that Could Improve Implementation
- USDA funding could help New York cover the ample administrative costs associated with rolling out a new federal program. Last year, the state incurred considerable costs launching, staffing, communicating about, and implementing P-EBT. As the original epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, the state was already reeling economically. This year, the state can submit a budget to the federal government to cover costs associated with administering the program.
- USDA’s call for a hotline with "empowered" staff could help the state address disputes and issuance errors in real time. The hotline that New York launched last year had too few staff answering calls. The staff that were available provided conflicting answers to participants’ questions and could respond only to correct a problem, not prevent one. USDA’s strong encouragement to improve hotlines, coupled with administrative funds to cover the costs, should help ease the P-EBT process for people already under a great deal of stress.
- USDA’s requirement to rethink distribution methods could increase participation, especially for participants who previously used Medicaid cards to access the benefit. USDA has made clear that this school year, states can change their processses for distributing P-EBT. Many New York participants who were directly certified for school meals through Medicaid are still struggling to access last year's benefits. The state should consider issuing new P-EBT cards to this population and letting other participants continue to use their P-EBT cards from last year.
- USDA’s requirement to educate the public about the program could also increase participation. Last year, the state did not conduct comprehensive outreach, leaving many eligible families confused about the benefit. For example, many immigrant families were unclear whether they could safely use P-EBT. This year, with administrative funds, New York can educate the general public about P-EBT's benefits and improve communication with participants.
- The slight increase in the 2020-2021 benefit amount could help bolster the New York economy. Students may receive up to $5.86 per day, up from $5.70 last year. This 16 cent increase multiplied by the number of missed school days, multiplied by the roughly 2 million students eligible to recieve the benefit could result in many more dollars circulating in the New York economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office and Moody’s, every dollar spent through EBT generates $1.50 in economic activity, making these benefits one of the most effective economic supports during a downturn.
Components that Could Injure Implementation
- USDA’s specifications to regularly verify students’ and schools’ schedules are overly burdensome. USDA suggests that states outline how they will monitor each student's in-person and virtual schedules, as well as closures, reduced hours, or reduced attendance at individual schools. New York can apply simplifying assumptions to streamline verification processes, but must provide detailed justification for any assumptions. With so many students at risk of going hungry and the school year already in session, governments' focus should be on getting food benefits to families as swiftly as possible, not on developing cumbersome, costly processes to track resources we know are desperately needed.