Over the last three months, we’ve read wall-to-wall headlines about the COVID-19 pandemic. Headlines about people crowding public spaces in reopening states, about record-breaking unemployment numbers, about new studies that change the narrative of what we know about the disease. But it’s something that’s been far less present in the news that keeps us up at night at Code for America: kids going hungry because schools are closed.
Today, there are 30 million kids across the country who receive free and reduced-price meals at school through the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Programs. That means families are now struggling to provide up to 10 more meals a week, per child, because they are no longer getting them at school. We know about their struggles because Code for America has been focused on serving these families since long before the pandemic hit. Our research team has spent time in living rooms with families who rely on school meals—hearing their stories and learning from their experience. Our design team has spent hours sitting next to public servants, toggling back and forth to make sense of antiquated systems and paper forms. Our data scientists have tested, refined, and tested again how to reach the hardest-to-find kids, who are too often left out of programs they need. This is what we do at Code for America: use research, design, and data to understand and meet people’s needs.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the federal government authorized a new emergency program, Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), to replace school meals with money for groceries while schools are closed. For each state, that meant they had to create, coordinate, plan, and deliver a brand-new benefit in a time of crisis. That is the challenge of today—we need to do things in a new way and on faster timelines. For us, we are fortunate to have built a decade of delivery-driven know-how to reach as many kids as fast as possible. So when our longtime partners at California’s Department of Social Services (CDSS) asked if we could launch an accessible, online P-EBT application, we didn’t hesitate even though we knew the timeline would be tight. In fact, if we could do it, it would be one of the fastest product launches in the 10-year history of Code for America.
In short order, we moved resources around to speed up our internal timelines. Given our research, we know all too well what delays mean for families who rely on school meals. But what we didn’t know, is just how much need was out there. From the moment the application opened, our team saw the incredible demand. The first hour, we received more than 46,000 student applications. By noon, we’d reached more than 210,000 kids. By the end of the day it was more than 430,000 and today, just one week later, we have reached 1.3 million kids across the state. And the applications just keep coming.
We don’t know exactly what the numbers will be on June 30th when the program ends. But, we have learned a few things in this moment:
- First, we need an ambitious vision in government. CDSS’ courage to be nimble and step into a role that the agency doesn’t usually fill opened the door to new pathways of reaching families.
- Second, we must work together. To reach as many families as we could required an involved, engaged ecosystem: from trusted local community organizations like food banks who helped spread the word, to school districts who knew how and where to find their students, to our partners at the U.S. Digital Response who are helping provide the people power to expand this service to other states.
- Third, and most importantly, this is a time of immense anxiety for families about whether help will be available to them. Think about the parents of 46,000 children who were up early last Friday morning to submit applications in the very first hour that the P-EBT application went live, hoping that it would help them feed their families. We’re one part of a far larger effort to get benefits into people’s hands, and Code for America's role was to build a helpful, empathetic digital experience. But what we heard in response was how easy the application was to fill out, and what a relief it was to be met with a welcoming door, and not a closed one.
A quote on the wall in our now empty office reads, “No one is coming, it is up to us.” The last five days have sharpened that truth for us. And by “us,” we mean far more than the staff of Code for America. We need everyone in a position to help to do anything and everything they can for our neighbors who need it. We’re calling on volunteers, school districts, community-based organizations, media outlets, other nonprofits, and government workers at all levels to step up and meet this moment with us. We’ve seen how stark the need is for children across California, but the same is true for children and families in all corners of the country. The best way to meet these needs, at scale, is by building a government with heart.