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40% Of Eligible Missouri Kids Missing Out On Added Food Assistance

A Jennings child expresses disappointment about the lack of chocolate milk options on the first day of summer school. Operation Food Search, a regional food bank, will supply meals to a thousand students at the north St. Louis County school district this
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A child picks up lunch during a summer meal program in June 2018. Government aid to make up for lost school meals this spring hasn't reached all needy families.

Federal money meant to help low-income families with food costs while kids were home from school this spring is reaching just 60% of Missouri’s eligible families.

The Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer is a $5.40 a day allocation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that usually goes to high-poverty schools to feed their students. Instead this spring the P-EBT money was sent directly to families across the country as a one-time check of up to $302.

In Missouri as well as several other states, finding all eligible families has proven difficult. Families enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance automatically received the extra cash. Families not enrolled in SNAP but whose children receive a free or reduced-price lunch at school, or families that fell below the income threshold, had to manually apply. 

Families not enrolled yet in Missouri make up “a sizable chunk,” said Trina Ragain, the director of policy and innovation at Operation Food Search.

“That is concerning because these are families who struggle to put food on the table,” she said.

Complicating things further is that the two programs are run by separate state agencies and have different databases.

“These databases weren’t built to talk to one another, and so states across the country including Missouri had to figure out how to bridge those two datasets,” Ragain said.

About 106,000 households (which may include more than one child) got the $302 automatically; another 49,000 have applied. Half of all public school students in Missouri — about 432,000 kids — qualify for subsidized meals, which would mean roughly 172,000 children haven’t received the benefit.

The Missouri Department of Social Services’ Family Support Division, which runs the food assistance programs, has expanded the application deadline for P-EBT to July 7, and food banks are aggressively promoting the program in a last-minute push to not lose the federal aid.

“If we had the chance to do this again, I think a more robust marketing campaign throughout the state that utilized all partners that work with families would help to increase the number of times families receive outreach about this program,” Ragain said.

Missouri officials spoke about the program during press conferences, distributed information through letters and emails and reached out through multiple state agencies and community groups, a DSS spokesperson said.

“It’s hard to effectively outreach to that population unless you do on-the-ground kind of outreach with people they’re already encountering,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, the director of policy and organizing at Empower Missouri.

When the pandemic swept across the country and schools told students to stay home, Missouri and many other states increased social welfare programs to make sure kids still got fed. School districts scrambled to find a way to keep handing out breakfasts and lunches to students. Long lines of cars snaked throughfood pantry parking lots.

A family leaves Hamilton Elementary School in St. Louis on March 26, 2020, with school meals.
Credit File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A family leaves Hamilton Elementary School in St. Louis on March 26 with school meals. Districts set up food distribution sites after schools closed.

“I am not minimizing how hard this has been for the Family Support Division; I’m not saying they haven’t been trying,” Oxford said, but added that not upgrading state computer systems years ago was “a real mistake.”

Several other states have similar rates for getting money to their low-income families.

National figures on the success of distributing P-EBT haven’t been compiled, but informal surveys show states reached 60% to 75% distribution rates. Illinois has also only gotten the P-EBT payment out to 60% of eligible families. In Louisiana, it’s 65%. 

States that automatically enrolled families eligible for the school meals program, including Indiana and Vermont, had higher dispersal rates.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.