Tennessee risks losing $50M in pandemic food aid as 217,000 eligible kids have not been enrolled

At the risk of leaving more than $50 million in federal funds on the table — and after doubling down on a redundant application process — Tennessee is now scrambling to determine how to distribute pandemic food assistance to low-income families.

States have until Sept. 30 to give out cards loaded with funds through the federal Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT, program. But for months, Tennessee kept in place a self-imposed application process that resulted in only a fraction of eligible children receiving the benefits.

Of the children who are already eligible to receive the money but whom the state has required to apply, 217,000, or 56%, have not been enrolled, according to data provided Wednesday by the Tennessee Department of Human Services. The department administers the program.

Based on enrollment numbers provided by DHS, if the remaining eligible students aren’t enrolled in the P-EBT program by the end of September, the state would forfeit $54 million in federal funds allocated for that purpose.

Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday hinted that Tennessee may be reconsidering its decision to require parents to apply, something some other states did not do.

“Part of what we wanted to do was evaluate whether this was the best strategy,” Lee said. “There were a couple of choices, and states chose different routes with different challenges in both, and our challenge was different than some of the others that chose a different route.

“We’re trying to look at that and see which route works better, and therefore is there something we can do to get money to the families that need it most?”

Advocacy groups in Tennessee say yes: The state could abandon the application process and work with local schools to get the P-EBT cards to eligible students.

Education commissioner Penny Schwinn on Tuesday said her department has now allocated additional staff members to work with DHS on distributing the funds.

“We have it on tap to talk to superintendents this week to determine what is both realistic and feasible to make sure we can get as many students as possible qualified, especially those who do not have the ability to come into school and get a lunch or a breakfast if they are learning in a remote environment,” Schwinn said.

Families would receive $250 per child for food

The P-EBT initiative was created this spring in order to reimburse the families of children on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s free and reduced meal programs, since the students were not able to receive the meals due to school closures. 

In Tennessee, those families were eligible to receive around $250 per child for school meals missed between March and May. The payment card can be spent at grocery stores and places where EBT cards are currently accepted.

While some states opted to mail P-EBT cards directly to families in the school meal program, DHS required those families to apply by Aug. 14 in order to receive the funds if they weren’t already enrolled with the department for other welfare programs.

Now, DHS is back to the drawing board to figure out with the Department of Education “how to best reach families,” DHS spokesman Sky Arnold said in a statement Wednesday.

The department on Wednesday did not explicitly answer whether they were considering waiving the application process for the remaining eligible families. 

In Tennessee, 526,000 children have received P-EBT funds, including the families who applied and those who automatically received benefits due to enrollment in other welfare programs

Alan Hall, an attorney practicing business law who worked as the DHS inspector general until 2012, has urged the department to abandon its application process and work with local school districts or county DHS offices to get the cards into qualifying parents’ hands.

“It’s just unconscionable to me that we’re not passing out this money that’s already been approved,” said Hall, who has spoken with officials in the department in recent weeks to offer his ideas on how to successfully distribute the funds.

“You go to school, you go through that traumatizing process of applying for free and reduced lunch, and you get approved for it, and now the state doesn’t want to give you what the federal government allotted during a pandemic.”

Asked Tuesday about the prospect of local school districts playing a role in distributing the cards, Schwinn said the idea was one of the things the department is working on.

“We want to make sure that as many students get access to those resources as possible,” Schwinn said.

Signe Anderson, director of nutrition advocacy for the Tennessee Justice Center, which has led efforts to get DHS to remove the application process, said on Wednesday they want the state to do “whatever works” to get the money to the eligible families.

“If schools are set up to distribute it themselves, that’s great,” Anderson said. “If it’s just the schools need to get the correct addresses to DHS, that’s fine too.

“We just want to make sure the money’s getting into the hands of the families that are trying to get food on the table. There’s still time left.”

In a previous statement, Arnold said the department believed that the application process for P-EBT “reduces the risk of fraud” and ensures cards are sent to the most up-to-date addresses.

In at least one other state, North Carolina, officials made an error when pulling data on file with schools and improperly addressed some of the P-EBT cards.

Reach Natalie Allison at nallison@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.

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