New Jersey families were supposed to receive nearly $564 million this school year to keep their children from going hungry. But as classes end, the state still has not distributed most of the emergency food money.
In a state where more than one in seven children are projected to face food insecurity this year, the monthslong bureaucratic delay has left some children without enough to eat.
Jameeleh Benson, who lost her job at a Popeyes chicken restaurant shortly after the pandemic began, has five children in the Newark school system. With all but one learning remotely since last spring, the children have missed the free daily meals they’d normally get at school. Benson has turned to family members and food pantries for help, but it hasn’t been enough: Many days, her children have had to skip breakfast or lunch, she said.
“Never in a million years have we struggled the way we’ve struggled these past months with COVID going on,” she said.
A federal relief program called Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT, was meant to be a lifeline for families like Benson’s. Created last spring, it gives parents grocery money to make up for school meals that children missed while learning from home.
In September, with most school buildings still shuttered, Congress extended the program through this school year. It also expanded the program to include children in child care, who had not been eligible for the first round of benefits.
In New Jersey, families should receive about $123 per month for each eligible child under 6 and for school-age children who were fully remote. They are due about $61 per month for each child who attended school in person part-time. (To be eligible, the families of children under 6 had to receive food stamps; school-age children are eligible if they normally receive free or reduced-price school meals.)
But, as the school year ends, New Jersey has only just started giving out food money for the past nine months to the parents of eligible preschool-age children. Benefits for those roughly 105,000 children should be distributed by June 25, officials said.
The families of more than 840,000 school-age children still have yet to receive a single dollar of the emergency assistance they are owed dating back to last October. That money could have filled countless cupboards and refrigerators in homes where children were stuck learning remotely this school year.
Benson should have received about $5,340 to buy groceries for her family. Without that aid to supplement her food stamps, she has relied on food pantries to stock up on canned food and vegetables for her children.
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“I have to go there in order to make ends meet,” she said. “That keeps something on the plate.”
New Jersey also was late sending out the Pandemic-EBT money last year.
A spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, which administers the benefits program, said the agency is still working with school districts to identify students who were eligible for the food money this school year. It expects to issue the funds “later this summer.”
The delay is partly due to the Trump administration, which was slow to roll out the new benefits program last year. But New Jersey also bears some responsibility.
Some states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in December explaining how they would issue the food money to families with school-age children. But other states took much longer to finish their plans, which must be approved before benefits can go out. New Jersey didn’t get its plan approved until April.
Now, the state Department of Human Services is scrambling to get the detailed information it needs from school districts in order to calculate how much money families should receive. Districts, in turn, must determine whether each eligible student was fully remote or on a hybrid schedule in every month since October. (Families already received benefits for the month of September 2020.)
“It’s a heavy lift for school districts to figure out which kids they should send to DHS,” said Nancy Parello, communications director for Hunger Free New Jersey, an advocacy group that helped the state get the P-EBT program running. “In an ideal world, these benefits would already be in the hands of families that need them.”
Errors at any step in the process could cost cash-strapped families hundreds of dollars.
In Newark, Neoshi Baker never received the first round of emergency benefits for her two children, who attend Ridge Street School and received free lunch before the pandemic. Eventually, Baker was told her children were ineligible because she failed to submit an income-verification form, which she says she never received. She contacted school, district, and state officials to correct the issue, she said, but got nowhere.
“I’ve been sending emails, letters, phone calls — everything humanly possible since July of last year — and no one will help me,” she said. “Now, my kids are suffering.”
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A district spokesperson did not respond to questions for this article.
Meanwhile, states face yet another hurdle. When Congress extended the food assistance program through this school year, it set September 2021 as the end date. As a result, states must figure out how to disburse benefits this summer even as they rush to make retroactive payments.
So far, only 12 states have approved distribution plans for this summer. New Jersey is not one of them.