Late again, Tennessee finally distributes funds to feed hungry kids

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(Photo: Laura Olivas/Getty Images)

This article was written by Dulce Torres Guzman, Tennessee Lookout

After months-long delays, state officials announced on Thursday that eligible families will finally be receiving funds from a federal summer food program to help with the rising cost of groceries.

Summer Pandemic-EBT is an emergency program that originally rolled out with the 2020 CARES Act to assist families with meals after schools closed due to the pandemic. State officials initially required families to fill out an online application to receive the funds, which child-nutrition advocates criticized as causing unnecessary barriers to families who had already been identified as in need of assistance. 

This is the longest that families have had to wait for support and with school closed for the summer, the parents we work with have shared stories about how difficult it has been.

– Signe Anderson, director of nutrition advocacy, Tennessee Justice Center

The Tennessee Department of Human Services submitted a plan to the federal government, which approved it in May 2020 — but the state delayed distribution of P-EBT benefits for two months. More than 700,000 children received benefits in the 2020-2021 school year.

This year, the DHS submitted their application in February and scheduled P-EBT to be distributed to families by May, but delayed distribution until July 30. 

“This is the longest that families have had to wait for support and with school closed for the summer, the parents we work with have shared stories about how difficult it has been,” said Signe Anderson, director of nutrition advocacy for the Tennessee Justice Center. 

According to Devin Stone, DHS spokesperson, the delay was caused by technical difficulties in verifying data to know which children were eligible. 

While more children were eligible for P-EBT in 2020 due to school closures, most schools went back to in-school instruction for the 2021-2022 school year.  Children were required to have excused absences due to COVID-19, have attended a school that closed for at least five days, and be eligible to receive free meals through the National School Lunch Program or attended a Community Eligibility Program to qualify for P-EBT.

This year, more than 62,000 children in Tennessee are expected to receive P-EBT, which is significantly less than the previous school year. 

Families were not required to fill out an application but state officials encountered problems collecting data on COVID-19 related absences from schools who did not collect the information or release the data to the state. 

Anderson said federal laws prevent school officials from revealing a child’s medical history. 

“A school counselor who works in Knox county said the school administration initially instructed teachers not to mark absences as being related to COVID-19,” said Anderson.

Early Childcare P-EBT is also expected to reach families in the next couple of weeks. 

In the meantime, families have struggled while waiting for P-EBT while experiencing extra difficulties from higher gas prices and inflation. 

“So they’re really waiting for P-EBT and need the support,” said Anderson. 

“Sometimes parents skip meals, and if it gets really dire, there are parents who go to a food pantry. We always hear from parents that with P-EBT benefits, they were able to afford more healthy food that they know their children need, and without it, some of the healthy stuff that’s expensive gets cut out of their budget,” she added.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Published on August 1, 2022.