The window to apply for special pandemic food assistance for low-income students closes on Friday afternoon, but so far not even half of eligible Tennessee families have applied.
Students enrolled in free and reduced lunch are eligible for the aid. Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT, allots each child $5.70 per day to help cover the cost of meals missed due to school closures in the spring. That totals around $250 for each child whose school closed in late March.
But as of this week, the state is poised to leave tens of millions of dollars in federal aid on the table. That’s largely because it implemented an application process for the aid. Many other states waived that requirement and automatically sent cards loaded with the money.
Children enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were automatically given P-EBT aid. But those who receive only discounted school lunch — not fully free — must apply to get it.
Tennessee’s Department of Human Services says it needed families to verify addresses. The department also says it’s guarding against fraud.
However, some advocates argue the state already has the information it would need to send out aid, since it mailed fliers to many families earlier in the pandemic.
Other advocates say many families have been unaware that the aid was available or had difficulties applying because of technical and language proficiencies.
Over the last month the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition in Nashville has had more than 200 families call asking for assistance with the application, a service it hadn’t previously provided. Omar Gutierrez, who now helps run the assistance line, says many families were unable to read the state’s website or needed to be guided through technical portions, like creating an email address.
The DHS website now has P-EBT information available in English, Spanish, Somali and Arabic. It also advertises an interpretation phone line. But an archived version of the page from just a week ago shows significantly less translated information and promotes no such interpreting service.
Of the 388,000 students eligible for P-EBT that didn’t automatically receive it, fewer than 200,000 have applied. Families can apply and find more information here. The deadline to apply for P-EBT is 4:30 p.m. Friday.