The Colorado state government paid parents of 306,000 low-income children an estimated $ 300 million this summer to make up for meals that children did not receive at school during distance learning last school year – $ 100 million more than that State expected.
And more than $ 200 million is yet to come from the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program – a large-scale attempt by the government to alleviate the dramatic rise in hunger that Colorado and the nation experienced during the pandemic.
“Anecdotally, since P-EBT launched in May, we’ve seen a decline in demand for emergency food assistance,” said Teva Sienicki, CEO of Denver anti-hunger group Metro Caring.
“We’ve definitely seen the pressure on families relieved, to be honest. They could go out and go to the grocery stores and buy their kids’ favorite foods without making appointments and standing in line for charitable dinners in town, ”added Sienicki.
The payments to be made on unprepared food like groceries were created by Congress at the start of the pandemic when schools switched to distance learning.
The money comes from the federal government, but it was up to the states to implement it. Logistical problems slowed state adoption; Colorado began sending back payments in late May, after the school year ended.
“This is an exceptionally complex program, and overall, I can say we have had some success,” said Karla Maraccini, director of food and energy aid for the Colorado Department of Human Services, who oversees the program. “It’s a really big deal to give (that money) to families so they can use it to buy healthy food for their children.”
The agency estimated the P-EBT program would cost $ 200 million. Instead, it cost about $ 300 million over three payments – late May, late June, and late July. Eligibility depended on whether students received free or discounted meals at school – including the children of anyone visiting the United States without legal permission.
In the form of EBT cards (which are also used for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the government paid $ 6.82 for each day of distance learning, or about $ 136 per month and $ 1,224 per child for a nine month long School year. For students participating in hybrid learning, the average price was $ 82 per month, or $ 737 for the school year.
“We are still seeing levels of crisis when it comes to hunger, and those are higher with Coloradans of Color and families with children,” said Anya Rose, public policy manager at Hunger Free Colorado. “We hear that these P-EBT benefits are really crucial. For some families, they are the only forms of pandemic aid they have received. This is especially true for immigrant families. “
In late fall, University of Colorado-Denver researchers will publish a report on the impact of P-EBT payments, Maraccini said.
“I would be shocked if we found deliberate fraud in this program. We had a situation in which a number of households that were technically no longer eligible received this. We have informed this (the US Department of Agriculture) about this. We haven’t received any guidance from them on the next steps, ”added Maraccini.
The three-pay approach should not only help the state stop erroneous payments or fraud, but also prevent a one-time rush to Colorado grocery stores that would leave shelves empty. A spokesman for King Soopers said the grocer’s data does not allow him to determine whether he has sold more groceries after sending P-EBT payments.
Two sets of P-EBT payments are still pending. In late August, the state will send an estimated $ 70 million to parents of 70,000 children under the age of six if those parents are eligible for SNAP benefits.
And because Congress extended P-EBT to the summer months during the pandemic, the state will send an estimated $ 150 million to the parents of 401,000 children later this year. The state’s plan has not yet been approved by the USDA, so it is not known when these payments will be made. Anti-hunger advocates have been pushing for a summer EBT program for many years, according to Rose.
Combined, payments to Colorado parents since May have totaled $ 520 million for groceries.