As lines for food banks stretch for miles and millions of Californians apply for unemployment in record numbers amid the coronavirus pandemic, a new anti-hunger program is giving families debit cards to keep their fridges and pantries stocked.
Close to two-thirds of school-aged children in California could well be eligible, and the state anticipates spending as much as $1.4 billion on the infusion into the budgets of struggling households, said Kimberley Johnson, director of the California Department of Social Services. In spreading the word about the new food benefits program this week, Johnson said families with children who are receiving food stamps, public health and foster care benefits do not even need to apply, because the money will be issued automatically. “And the funds will be in the mail later this month.”
Starting in mid-May, families with children who receive free or reduced-cost school lunches, and whose schools have closed in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, will receive Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, known as P-EBT, cards loaded with up to $365 per child that they can use to buy groceries. The funds are meant to bolster CalFresh – California’s version of the federal food stamp program – and the grab-and-go food distribution programs being run by school districts while campuses are shut down, according to the CDSS, which is administering the program.
P-EBT cards can be used like debit cards at grocery stores, farmer’s markets and some online food retailers. The students’ names will be on the cards, not the names of their parents or guardians.
Jared Call, a senior advocate with the California Food Policy Advocates, said for low-income households, this boost in their grocery fund will ease the strain of paying other bills.
“Food, unfortunately, is something that we do know parents will cut back on for themselves to make sure there’s enough for kids, or to make that care payment or cobble together for rent,” Call said.
In progressive California, the benefits program will be available to families regardless of immigration status.
The program is meant to serve kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals through the federal School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. It will be available to K-12 youth, as well as some younger kids who attend participating pre-K schools as well as young adults at alternative or extension high schools, according to the department.
Families who applied for Medi-Cal or CalFresh benefits after their schools closed will also automatically receive the debit card, though they may not receive the full $365. Their benefit amount will be determined based on when their benefits were certified.
The cards will be mailed out between May 12 and May 22. An online application portal will open up in late May for eligible families who aren’t already participating in the qualifying benefits programs and didn’t receive a card automatically. They will have until June 30 to submit an application;, and those who miss the application deadline will not be eligible for the one-time benefit.
State officials estimate that about 3.8 million children in California will be eligible for the benefit, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act enacted in mid-March.
For families that aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance or stimulus checks, these debit cards could be the only form of emergency assistance they’re receiving, said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. It also helps families that haven’t been able to take advantage of the school districts’ grab-and-go meal program because of transportation issues or strict adherence to shelter-at-home orders.
As of May 1, 15 states in addition to California have tapped into the federal P-EBT program: Delaware, Oregon, Michigan, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Arizona, Illinois, Alabama, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Kansas, Virginia, Maryland and New Mexico.
Advocates celebrating California’s efforts to stave off hunger pointed to research showing that nutrition assistance is the most beneficial economic stimulus. According to a 2019 USDA study, every dollar spent on new food stamp benefits increases the country’s gross domestic product by up to $1.80.
Bartholow, who has worked in anti-hunger advocacy for years, said she hopes this program can serve as a jumping-off point for post-pandemic policies to address gaps in school meal programs. There are so many Americans who have long gone hungry, in the shadows of the public gaze. The pandemic, she added, is shining bold light on them.
“This policy itself is a proof in concept that we can serve kids when they’re not in school,” she said. “This fear of not having enough food that has clearly permeated the American psyche, how will that help us see what our neighbors experience regularly?”
Sara Tiano can be reached at [email protected].
Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this article.