When schools suddenly shuttered across the country as the novel coronavirus first swept through states in March, the logistical repercussions were severe. Millions of schools had to pivot from in-person to remote learning on a dime, with teachers learning how to command their students’ attention through a screen and parents learning how to take on teaching responsibilities. Another huge consideration: massive school closures in the spring meant that millions of children were suddenly without the free and reduced-price meals they normally received at school.
"My job that I worked part time is closed due to coronavirus. My kids are home from school and I have no daycare for them. They are on the school lunch program and that is a financial issue to provide what they need at this time."
Almost 30 million children across the country receive free or reduced-cost meals at school through the National School Lunch Program. The loss of these meals, in addition to the tens of millions of families experiencing sudden job loss, threatened to send child hunger rates soaring.
In response, the Congressional Families First Coronavirus Response Act authorized a brand new benefits program: Pandemic EBT, or P-EBT. The idea behind it was simple: allow children who would normally receive free and reduced-price school meals to receive money to buy replacement food on an EBT card. The implementation of the program, however, proved far more complicated. States were launching a brand new program that required immense cross-agency collaboration on a tight timeline during an unprecedented crisis. Which meant most states had to get creative and employ major workarounds to make the program work.
We’ve written before about the online application we built that helped Minnesota and California bridge the data gap to get P-EBT benefits in the hands of families who were challenging to reach. Our application was a successful fix for the immediate need for accurate and current data and mailing information in order to issue P-EBT benefits to children in a crisis, but relying on a separate application for families to fill out and submit was far from an ideal solution to the problem of how to deliver P-EBT.
In addition to building the P-EBT online application, we provided consulting to 10 states, helping them implement P-EBT in a quick, effective, and human-centered way. Over months of troubleshooting, we noticed distinct commonalities between where states struggled in the rollout of their P-EBT programs. Despite herculean efforts among human services and education agencies to get P-EBT off the ground, there were a few key technological, operational, and logistical barriers that consistently got in the way and hampered a smooth rollout of the program across the country.
While the final outcomes of the program aren’t known yet, preliminary data suggests that P-EBT made a significant impact on child hunger, lifting children in the lowest-income households out of food insecurity. P-EBT is an essential program for children during this ongoing crisis, and should be extended to help families provide for their kids as we head into another year of remote or hybrid learning in many places. However, it’s critical to learn from the successes and challenges states faced with P-EBT this spring and summer, and iterate on the policy as we prepare for another uncertain school year. (For our specific recommendations on how to improve upon a next iteration of P-EBT, read our policy memo.)
The linchpin of P-EBT: Accurate and up-to-date student data
There were several key challenges with P-EBT that caused almost universal problems across states. Sharing data between school districts and human services agencies proved challenging, especially when you added layers of privacy law or schools and government offices closing. States had to navigate and update complex existing vendor contracts to launch the program. But the most pervasive and impactful issue we saw was with the accuracy and integrity of existing K-12 student data needed to issue P-EBT benefits.
In an ideal world, each state would have been able to simply send a P-EBT card in the mail directly to all families who qualified for the benefit, but many states didn’t have the data infrastructure to make this possible. The successful launch of P-EBT hinged on a state’s ability to identify all eligible students within existing education datasets, and for that data to include thorough, accurate, up-to-date student information. In many school districts, student information needed to issue a benefit like this (address, parent/guardian contact information, meal program eligibility) is collected at a particular point in time, often the beginning of the school year in the fall, and there is no mechanism to adjust or correct that data if circumstances suddenly change—as many families’ did once the pandemic hit.
All these factors combined meant that when human services agencies needed the basic information of every student in the state who received free and reduced price school meals at the drop of a hat, the process of collecting, synthesizing, and using that data was a logistical nightmare. Not to mention that much of that data couldn’t be relied on in the first place, with the pandemic compounding uncertainty and instability for millions. If every state had consistent and reliable data practices, P-EBT benefits could be issued more smoothly and easily. And with back-to-school season upon us once more, schools and states across the country have an opportunity right now to make that a reality by putting some new practices in place.
Iterating on P-EBT policy
As of today, the P-EBT program is set to expire at the end of September, and states must issue benefits and close their books before then. Even as human services agencies begin to phase out the program, schools across the country are facing uneven reopenings, with many closing back down after only just weeks of in person learning. With the future of in-person schooling this year remaining wildly uncertain amidst an as-yet-uncontrolled pandemic, the question of a possible extension of the P-EBT program looms larger. If schools do not open or are forced to close down again, Congress must authorize a new wave of P-EBT. This begs the questions: How can P-EBT policy adapt based upon real, on-the-ground evidence to put families first? How could states be set up for success so that P-EBT works more smoothly the next time?
We’re in a critical moment with an opportunity to learn from this first wave of P-EBT and be in a much better position for a potential second, but the window is closing fast. It is time to think hard about how both the policy and the delivery could be improved to help families who are still very much in crisis. P-EBT was an important proving ground for how we can prevent child hunger when it’s unsafe for schools to be open, but if we don’t learn from the challenges encountered the first time around and make changes, we’re setting ourselves up to face them a second time. Now is the time to craft a more delivery-driven P-EBT policy that delivers benefits in an effective, human-centered way that is ready to meet the “new normal” of the 20-21 school year.
For our recommendations on how to improve upon Pandemic EBT, read our policy memo.