‘Access to food has become an important issue’: State unveils new food assistance benefits for children

ST. GEORGE — As a provision of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress in March, new temporary food assistance benefits will soon be made available to school-age children in Utah. 

A lunch pick up site in Washington County, March 30, 2020 | Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News

Administered by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, the Pandemic-EBT program provides a one-time payment of $308 per eligible child in prekindergarten through 12th grade. Benefits are intended to cover the cost of school meals – roughly $5 per day – missed due to classroom closures between March 16 and May 29. 

“We definitely know that there are some families who could use additional food assistance right now,” said Nate McDonald, assistant deputy and communication director for the Department of Workforce Services. “This money comes to the state of Utah for these families only if they apply.”

The program is open to any children who, as of March 16, were receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, receiving free or reduced-price school meals or attending a Title I school designated as having a majority of students eligible for these meals.

No action is required for the families of the approximately 60,000 children statewide already receiving SNAP benefits, as the one-time payment will be added to their existing EBT card balance. SNAP EBT cards are accepted by over 1,400 retailers across Utah, from grocery stores to farmers’ markets. 

An additional 160,000 students from 73,000 households across Utah are designated as eligible for Pandemic-EBT benefits but must apply. The application will be available online through Aug. 31. 

With such a narrow window of opportunity to enroll, nonprofit group Utahns Against Hunger is collaborating with the Department of Workforce Services and community organizations across the state to inform as many families as possible about this new food assistance program. 

“This is a benefit that will not only help those families purchase food, but it also is a good thing for the economy,” executive director Gina Cornia said. 

McDonald told St. George News that payments may be available to families participating in SNAP as early as the beginning of August, while all qualifying households should receive their benefits no later than Sept. 30. Enrollment in the Pandemic-EBT program will not impact students’ eligibility for any future free or reduced-price school meals. 

Cafeteria workers from North Elementary School hand out sack lunches in a drive-up line. In Cedar City, Utah, March 30, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

Steven Dunham, communications director for the Washington County School District, said that 33.5% of Pre-K through 12th grade students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. When remote instruction began for Washington and Iron County students in mid-March, both districts continued providing meals to kids in need at community pickup locations. Teachers, secretaries, custodians, and bus drivers stepped in to ensure more than 20,000 lunches (13,000 in Washington and 7,000 in Iron) were delivered each day. 

Utah was one of 17 states to decline federal funding to supplement school meals earlier this year, which McDonald attributed to the length of time and difficulty involved with determining eligibility. Over the summer, he said that students’ needs were met through increased SNAP benefits and lunch programs already in place through local school districts. The state eventually submitted an application for assistance to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was approved in early July. 

“We give full credit to the state school board and all the school districts and charter schools for working very hard to ensure that meals were still available to students,” McDonald said. “Every single school district had a plan.”

Cornia encouraged families concerned about food security to explore resources available not only through their school district, but through state programs and local organizations such as food banks. 

“We know that it’s really important for families to have additional resources right now, especially with a lot of parents who are out of work,” she said. “During the pandemic, access to food has become an important issue.”

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