Earlier this month, we wrote about how massive and rapid job loss in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic rise in the need for safety net benefits. In addition to keeping people away from work, shelter-in-place orders across the country have kept children away from school for over a month. This has been particularly devastating for the millions of children who receive free and reduced price meals every day through the National School Lunch Program.
In response, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act authorized the implementation of Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), a federal initiative to provide students that receive free and reduced price meals with a replacement food benefit to pay for groceries while schools are physically closed. However, the implementation of this policy surfaces numerous technical challenges—anything from data standardization to testing of legacy system capabilities, from matching data across agencies to standing up a digital application—and many states are struggling to figure out how to design and launch a P-EBT program. To support the implementation of this program, Code for America is building an accessible online P-EBT application, and has partnered with the U.S. Digital Response (USDR) to provide technical support at no cost to states.
What we’re building
We believe that the primary strategy in all states implementing P-EBT should be to directly issue P-EBT cards by using existing data in state eligibility systems. If a household receives SNAP, all of their school-aged children automatically qualify for free school meals. State data can therefore be used to identify students who are categorically eligible for free school meals and P-EBT. This is an efficient way to find students who qualify for the new P-EBT benefit and quickly issue their families cards with the electronic food benefit.
But how do you find and issue benefits to children who aren’t enrolled in these state benefits programs, especially if data from the Department of Education doesn’t contain all the information you need to issue P-EBT? In many cases, sufficient data doesn’t exist to match qualifying households and directly issue P-EBT benefits. For these cases, Code for America is building a digital P-EBT web application for student households that are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals, but not enrolled in SNAP, Medicaid, or otherwise known to social services systems. Simply by filling out this short application, eligible families can have a P-EBT card preloaded with food dollars sent right to their door. Code for America is building this application in partnership with the state of California. The digital application will be a mobile-responsive, user-friendly website that complies with FNS guidance for P-EBT, and will be built on Rails and AWS. We are preparing to have the site up live for California by the end of April, pending Food and Nutrition Service approval of California’s plan (submitted 4/10/20). After an initial launch in California, Code for America is prepared to support other states with technical assistance or a digital application to enroll families who cannot be reached using existing data for direct P-EBT issuance.
How we can support other states
We want to extend support for P-EBT implementation beyond California. In partnership with U.S. Digital Response - a network of over 4,000 technology, communications, and operations volunteers organizing to provide free assistance to government entities across the country—we can help states navigate technical barriers to implementing P-EBT, including helping to launch the digital application we’ve built in other states.
Support could include, but not be limited to, some of the following efforts:
- Hosting: Code for America may be able to make modifications to the content and styling of the online application, and host the application for additional states to use. We are already committed to this level of partnership in a small number of states, and could potentially have capacity to support one to two additional states in this way. In this partnership model, Code for America would customize the application, host it securely, and produce a bulk export CSV file of your state’s P-EBT application data daily.
- Open Source: The code for the P-EBT online application will be open source and available on GitHub for any state to implement themselves. States that want to host and modify the applications themselves might need additional help to get the service up and running. To support states who want to use the code and deploy the application internally, Code for America and/or a team of U.S. Digital Response volunteers can help states standardize data transfer or integration protocol to launch the application.
- Off the shelf: Code for America will also create a Qualtrics survey with the P-EBT application questions that can be copied to a state account and hosted by Qualtrics. Qualtrics has offered COVID-19 response support for free, and U.S. Digital Response volunteers can help states use the Qualtrics survey.
- Outreach: If phone numbers or email addresses are available for free and reduced-price eligible student households, Code for America can advise on messaging and notification strategies for outreach. If data is available for a data match that would allow for enrollment without client/household involvement, Code for America and U.S. Digital Response can advise on data matching strategies.
- General technical support: Code for America and U.S. Digital Response can also offer more generalized troubleshooting and consulting with states encountering technical barriers to the implementation of P-EBT. We can organize a small team of U.S. Digital Response volunteers to provide hands-on assistance solving technical challenges, such as data engineering support to improve the data matching process.
In the midst of a global pandemic, we know that the stakes for a human-centered safety net that works for those who need it have never been higher. P-EBT is an opportunity to enact delivery-driven policy as states establish their implementation plans, and we want to help if we can. Our work in this area is philanthropically-funded and we are offering support at no cost to states.
If you’re interested in learning more, please contact Eleanor Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org