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Food for Thought: How School Meal Programs Navigate COVID-19

Dorotha Littlejohn grew up understanding the pain of hunger — noting she often went to bed hungry and awoke with that same hunger. In the small South Carolina community that she called home, the benevolence of others helped her father (a widower) string meals together to feed his three children. Migration to Chicago and then northwest D.C. in the mid-1960s, marriage and “good job with the city” notwithstanding, Littlejohn now finds herself the caretaker of two grandchildren, and fighting to keep them from being acquainted with the hunger that defined her childhood.

“Everything costs so much that food becomes a luxury,” the 78-year-old Littlejohn said. “Rent is no longer reasonable, so my little retirement check – which really should be enough to manage my needs – will not keep two 11-year-olds clothed and fed as well. And under this pandemic, the kids just keep opening up the refrigerator door looking for where food ought to be.”

Fortunately for Littlejohn, free and reduced meal plans for public schoolchildren have been extended and enhanced since COVID-19 quarantine began offering additional funds to feed the household.

The Families First Act afforded states additional authority to allocate the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit to enrolled households, roll back work requirements for able-bodied adult SNAP recipients, implement the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program to provide food benefits to households whose children received free or reduced meals before schools shut down. Additionally, the Act increased funding for the emergency food program to help stock food pantries and other food distribution programs. Despite these efforts, recent reports have implied that households have experienced a substantial increase in food insecurity since the start of the pandemic.

P-EBT provides food benefits on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card to District families with children who normally receive free or reduced-price school meals if not for school closures due to COVID-19. According to the D.C. government website, the daily food benefit is equal to $5.70 per child per school day or $28.50 per week and can be used to purchase food at stores that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formally food stamps) EBT benefits and can also be used to purchase food for delivery online at Amazon.

“The school system has been gracious in supplying meals for the kids all summer and since I cannot get around too well, having a way to get food delivered and paid for has been a blessing to me,” Littlejohn said.

District families with children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals will receive benefits automatically. If the family current receives SNAP or TANF, P-EBT benefits will be automatically loaded onto the family’s existing EBT card. Families not on SNAP or TANF will automatically receive an EBT card in the mail with their P-EBT benefits pre-loaded. More information can be found at the DHS P-EBT page at dhs.dc.gov/p-ebt or by calling the P-EBT Call Center at (202) 868-6663 from 7:30 a.m. – 4:45 p.m., Monday-Friday.

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