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A Kansas City Mom Who 'Can Make A Meal Out Of Anything' Is Still Waiting On Federal Food Aid During Pandemic

Ray Weikal
Kansas City Public Schools
A Kansas City Public Schools food service employee prepares meals to pass out to students on March 19, 2020, before the citywide mask mandate. Nationally, school meal distribution is only reaching about 20% of families whose kids would normally receive free breakfast and lunch at school.

Kansas and Missouri families whose kids normally eat for free at school are still waiting for the USDA to clear the way for assistance during COVID-19 crisis.

Tiffanie White is still able to feed her three kids, but buying groceries isn’t easy right now. She lost her customer service job because of the pandemic, and she hasn’t been able to get through to unemployment to file a claim.

So when she goes to the grocery store once a week – wearing a mask, without her kids – she’s only buying what they absolutely need.

“They don’t have to have juice. I tell them, ‘You have water, you’re fine.’ We have peanut butter and jelly; we can make sandwiches. We have noodle packets. That’s what I was brought up on. I can make a meal out of anything,” White said.

Her friends and family are helping out. One friend dropped off a box full of food with a note: Hey, I don’t know if you need it. If you don’t, pass it on.

White only kept what she didn’t already have. She does the same thing at the food pantry at her youngest’s child care.

“We go there to try to get supplemental (groceries), but there are more needy families than us. At least we still have a roof over our heads,” she said. “So I don’t try to go all the time.”

White could pick up breakfast and lunch for her 5-year-old and 8-year-old from their school district, but she said the one time she had a ride, Kansas City Public Schools suspended meal distribution because a food service worker had COVID-19 symptoms.

That employee ended up testing negative, but it scared White, who has an 80-year-old grandma she’s trying to protect from the coronavirus. She hasn’t tried to pick up school meals since.

“Everyone is seeing a decline in attendance at food distribution,” KCPS Chief Financial Officer Linda Quinley said during a COVID-19 call with school board members last week. “We were on a call with all of the feeding groups last week, and they’re starting to see some slowdown as well.”

When school is in session, the district serves about 20,000 meals per day. But between March 24, when schools were closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, and Thursday, KCPS only handed out around 73,000 meals total.

That’s the trend everywhere, said Crystal FitzSimons with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Food Research & Action Center.

“Part of the problem is that a lot of school districts [nationwide] are only reaching 20% of the kids who might have relied on school meals,” FitzSimons said. “We need another alternative for families.”

That alternative is supposed to be pandemic electronic benefit transfer (P-EBT). A boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, it provides an additional $114 per child, per month while schools are closed to families whose kids normally get free breakfast and lunch. It was part of the very first coronavirus relief package Congress passed in March, the same one that guaranteed paid leave for some workers.

“These are important benefits that families need to help stretch the budget at home,” FitzSimons said. “They help keep hunger at bay when kids don’t have access to school breakfast and lunch.”

But at the beginning of last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had only approved two states’ P-EBT applications: Michigan and Rhode Island. On Friday, they approved two more, then two more on Monday.

Kansas and Missouri are still waiting.

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Mallory McGowin said once the state’s application is approved, benefits will be retroactive – eligible families will get a one-time payment of $428 per child for the three-and-a-half month period between March and June.

Kansas is still working out those details, but a spokesman for the Department of Children and Families said P-EBT will also be a one-time payment.

Families will get their federal P-EBT benefits on prepaid cards that can be used to buy groceries. Families who weren’t eligible for SNAP before the pandemic, like White’s, will need to get a benefit card before receiving food assistance.

As for White, she hadn’t heard of the P-EBT program or the money she could potentially get through it in order to feed her family.

“That’s a good idea,” White said. “I think I should reapply. Everything’s changed.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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