Clock is ticking for NYC families: Millions in pandemic food benefits may expire next month

Ten students are scattered across a cafeteria, with five eating lunch at a table as an adult stands nearby.
As of October, at least 90,000 food benefits remained unused in New York City, totaling at least $35 million in unspent funds. (José A. Alvarado Jr. for Chalkbeat)

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Millions of dollars in unused NYC pandemic food benefits could begin to expire in February, as the deadline for families to use them rapidly approaches.

The funds — known as the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT — were sent to all New York City public school families in several rounds over the past four years. They’re intended to help cover costs for meals that would ordinarily be provided at school.

Last year, the state distributed multiple rounds of the benefits, including $120 per child for the summer of 2023, as well as at least $391 per child for the summer of 2022 and the 2021-22 school year. (Funds from the latter disbursement could total as much as $1,671 per child based on COVID-related absences or remote-learning days during the year.)

Now, the latter of these funds are set to expire for families who have not used them.

David Rubel, an education consultant who has followed the food benefits closely, fears thousands of families may soon lose benefits they’re not even aware they have.

“Imagine if tomorrow morning we read that the major food pantry programs lost half of their budget,” he said. “We’re really talking about something of that magnitude.”

Rubel’s concerns stem in part from data he obtained through a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which state officials confirmed. For P-EBT benefits issued for the summer of 2021, nearly 600,000 students across the state never redeemed the money, the data showed.

That meant roughly 27% of the more than 2.2 million students who received the benefits never used them — with the expired benefits totaling roughly $222 million.

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And for the expiring benefits from the summer of 2022, more than 263,000 recipients in New York City had not used the benefits, according to data shared by Rubel. That meant more than $100 million in potential food benefits were at risk of expiring.

Rubel worries the state hasn’t conducted sufficient outreach to inform families about each round of the funds. He said he’s urged state officials to request an amendment to the program timeline from the federal government.

The state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, or OTDA, which oversees the P-EBT program, said the expiration of the funds was based on federal statutes and regulations.

“The deadline cannot be extended,” officials said in a statement.

In a handful of other states, officials have amended their P-EBT programs to effectively extend the timeline for families to use their benefits. In California, for example, officials allowed households to request a restoration of their benefits if they had expired without ever being spent.

New York officials, however, said they had no plans to seek federal approval to amend the P-EBT program.

Here’s what families should know:

When will benefits start to expire?

P-EBT benefits automatically expire 274 days, or about nine months, after they were last used. More than 60% of the summer 2022 benefits were issued to families last May, meaning those who have yet to use them will see their funds start to expire in February.

Whenever families use the benefits, the timeline will reset and they will have another 274 days before the funds are at risk of expiration.

How can families replace their cards?

Families who have lost their P-EBT card can get a replacement by calling 1-888-328-6399.

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Why are some families not using the funds?

Since the pandemic began, OTDA has issued more than $6.3 billion in P-EBT benefits, with about 60% going directly to the existing accounts of households already receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Others received the funds on state-issued P-EBT cards.

The state maintains detailed information about the benefits on its website, and operates a phone helpline at 1-833-452-0096.

OTDA officials previously told Chalkbeat they’ve conducted extensive public outreach and worked with advocacy groups to help raise awareness of the food benefits. The state’s Education Department has also distributed messaging about the benefits to local school districts, officials said.

Families with valid phone numbers on file with their school district should also have received a text message whenever new benefits became available, according to state officials.

Some families, however, said they never received such text messages, and others have struggled to access the benefits.

“We should be striving for 100%,” said Angela Trude, an NYU professor who has studied food access and government benefits. “We want everybody to use the benefits.”

Trude said she’s worked with families who falsely assume that using food benefits could take money away from others who are in greater need, or that the government will eventually ask them to return the funds.

It’s critical to combat these misconceptions, she said, while also communicating that all families should use the benefits.

“If these families feel like they are taking away, then instead of not using them, they can actually buy nonperishable foods and donate them to community organizations and food pantries,” Trude added.

Rubel believes nearly all of the expired benefits from the summer 2021 disbursement occurred among families who are not SNAP recipients, as SNAP households received the benefits in their existing accounts and could keep spending as usual in order to use them.

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For families who have been able to take advantage of the benefits, advocates have said they can be hugely consequential. Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry New York, said P-EBT funds “can be the difference between a child going hungry or having a healthy, nutritious meal.”

“We know families are hurting — 3 out of 4 have told us it’s been harder to afford groceries than in 2022 — so we hope every household eligible for P-EBT takes advantage of this benefit,” she said in a statement. “We know how important it is to get the word out about these funds before they expire, and urge families to check their EBT accounts and keep their cards handy.”

New York needs more outreach, expert says

Wendy De La Rosa, an assistant marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied government benefits, said New York and other states should be doing more to effectively reach families.

Using text messages to notify families about their benefits is a “fundamentally flawed” approach, according to De La Rosa.

“Scams are through the roof, and every security expert is telling us to be scared,” she said. “In what world would we think that a single text message — often coming from an unknown number — would meaningfully increase uptake?”

For students experiencing housing instability, she added, phone numbers on file with school districts may be inaccurate or outdated.

“It has to be a text message, and an email, and a letter, and phone calls, and actually figuring out, ‘Which parents have we not reached?’” De La Rosa said. “And then making a concerted effort to reach them so that everybody is informed.”

Some families also respond better to certain messaging around benefits. Increasing the degree of ownership families over the benefits can spur more to use them, De La Rosa said. Families are more likely to make use of benefits that are framed as something they are entitled to, rather than those that are seen as a program meant to help them.

A permanent summer food benefits program on the horizon

Despite her concerns, De La Rosa said she’s pleased to see New York among the states that have opted into a permanent federal summer food benefits program. Across the country, 9.5 million students who would have been eligible for the benefits will likely go without them this year, after at least 12 states declined to participate in the program.

“When you put it in that context — where you have families in some states experiencing child hunger because the legislators didn’t want to implement this policy — then of course New York is ahead of the curve,” she said.

This story was updated on Feb. 14 with new data on unused benefits from the summer of 2022.

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering New York City. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org.

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