COVID-19 is receding and most schools have returned to in-person instruction, but parents across the country are continuing to receive checks to cover the cost of lunch if their children are absent.
The checks are part of a program first enacted in March 2020 called the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT). It’s designed to ensure that children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in K-12 schools receive some benefit if they missed in-person attendance because of the coronavirus or pandemic-related school closures.
At the moment, 15 states have opted into the program for the current school year. That number is down significantly from the 2020-2021 school year, when nearly all 50 states were part of the program.
West Virginia is set to inaugurate a third round of the program this spring. Overall, since 2020 the state’s families have received more than $328 million in food assistance through P-EBT.
“This third round of benefits is going to pour another $82 million into West Virginia for our children,” said Gov. Jim Justice, the state’s Republican chief executive. “Our children are the greatest treasure we have in West Virginia, and making sure our kids have enough to eat is absolutely the most important thing we can do.”
Given the program’s broad criteria, families will receive checks retroactively for school lunches missed going back to the start of the school year in September 2021. The size of the checks will depend on the number of lunches missed because of COVID-19 or pandemic-related school closures.
Across the country, parents of children who missed up to five school days in any given month will receive a check for $21.30, while those who missed up to 15 days will receive $71. Those who missed more than 16 days in one month will receive $127.80 for that period.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which helps administer the program, has set a daily rate of $7.10-per student. The sum is higher than the $6.82-per student rate that was approved by the federal government in the 2020-2021 school year.
“While we may be working through phases of the pandemic, child nutrition needs will always be among our chief concerns,” said W. Clayton Burch, West Virginia’s superintendent of schools. “We know these extended benefits are meeting a critical need to sustain development and learning among our children.”
Some states are not calculating the payments based on days missed, just opting to give parents a one-time direct payment. Several states utilized that model last year to provide families a one-time summer benefit of $375 per child.
Most states restrict the checks to families with children eligible to receive free or price-reduced meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). But the eligibility criteria are subject to significant debate.
At the start of the pandemic, congressional lawmakers suspended the NSLP’s eligibility restriction, expanding the program to all school children.
The move, according to the Department of Agriculture, has allowed an additional 10 million children to be fed through the program. That’s in addition to the nearly 20 million children from lower-income families that already qualified for free meals.
Critics say that by making school lunches universally available, state governments could technically send P-EBT checks to any child that misses school regardless of their parents’ income level.
The situation is unlikely to last long, as the NSLP is set to reimpose eligibility criteria for free or price-reduced lunches at the end of June. Democratic lawmakers failed to renew the expanded provisions in President Biden’s $1.5 trillion government funding bill earlier this month.
Lawmakers who support the expanded program have only one hope remaining — to push a standalone bill making the program universal, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $11 billion for the current fiscal year.
“No kid should have to go hungry, it’s really as simple as that. Kids need healthy meals to succeed and live up to their full potential,” said Senate Health and Education Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. “It shouldn’t be controversial to make sure our schools can keep kids fed.”
Republicans say they are not opposed to subsidizing the cost of school lunches, but want to ensure the money is being targeted to the truly needy.
“For some time, I have pushed all stakeholders involved to prepare to return to normal operation and respect that taxpayers’ unprecedented support of these programs over the last two years cannot be unlimited,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who serves as the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.
Some state lawmakers are not waiting for Congress to solve the problem. California and Maine in recent months have passed legislation making school lunch eligibility universal for all children.