|Federal Waiver Allows for Expansion of Family Food Benefits|
|By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff|
07:08PM / Wednesday, April 22, 2020
|Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders explains the P-EBT food program at Wednesday's briefing. |
BOSTON — Families struggling during the novel coronavirus lockdown may now be eligible for a state food program beginning in May.
Massachusetts was among the first states to take advantage of waivers to establish a "pandemic electronic benefit transfer program" under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
"It's an important opportunity to provide nutritional resources to families who have lost access to free or reduced price meals at schools across the country that closed in response to COVID-19," said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who added that food security is an important factor in the determinants of health.
"In October of 2019, there were more than a half a million children who received free and reduced price school meals across the commonwealth," she said at Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing. "Of those, a little less than half were actually known to our Department of Transitional Assistance, and currently received Department of Transitional Assistance benefits."
A cross-secretary initiative between DTA and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has implemented the program that provides direct financial assistance to purchase healthy foods for families with children who would have received free and reduced price meals if not for school closures because of the pandemic.
The program has supplemented 1,300 district "grab and go" meal sites, mostly supplied by school district food service departments, and households have directly received $28.50 per child per week of the closure. The direct benefit is designed to supplement grab-and-go meal sites.
"It also brings more than $100 million into the commonwealth economy, supporting our local grocery stores or bodegas or corner stores, and their employees," Sudders said.
DESE and local school districts have been collecting the data and DTA has been issuing the benefits to families. Existing DTA client households with eligible schoolchildren will receive the benefits on their current EBT cards.
It's families who have not previously been known to DTA that the state is trying to find. Those families will receive a special P-EBT card and a note explaining how to use it. Households in districts that provide universal school meals, such as North Adams, will be automatically enrolled.
This includes some families who are over the income limit for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the National School Lunch programs. No families are obligated to use the card, and they're instructed to destroy the card if they do not wish to participate.
"During this public health and economic crisis, families who were previously over income eligibility limits may have lost income sources and need this critical financial support to purchase food, and nutritional food for their family," said Sudders.
The administration is working with the Shaw Foundation to communicate information about the program, including developing a website and outreach materials with assistance of Project Bread, which will also help with outreach to schools, food banks and other partners.
"It's one of a number of resources we're trying to make available to ensure that families have the resources they need for food security for their families," Sudders said.
The COVID-19 Command Center has also launched a food security task force that had its first meeting on Wednesday. It includes representatives from state agencies, the Legislature, and food, wellness and community organizations with goals to identify immediate and long-term needs, seek solutions, and explore ways to maximize resources.
"The idea is to truly centralize coordination of resources and communication across sectors and across federal, state and municipal resources to meet the urgent food needs across every part of our state," Sudders said. "They have 30 days to submit a plan so that we can really ensure that families have the food that they need. It'll include a summer season and launch back to school, and obviously thinking beyond the school year."