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Missouri still hasn’t paid families the food assistance they’re owed from last summer

Fresh produce on a supermarket shelf
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service

Thousands of other Missouri families are waiting for benefits called summer Pandemic EBT, a federal program administered by states that provides a one-time deposit of $391 in grocery benefits for each eligible child. Compared to every other surrounding state, Missouri’s delays have been especially unusual.

Missouri still hasn’t paid families the food assistance they’re owed from last summer.

Marie Moorehead has been asking Missouri agencies the same question since last fall.

When will her family receive roughly $1,200 in one-time grocery benefits?

The benefits were part of a COVID federal relief program designed to help cover last summer’s food costs.

But more than five months since the summer ended, the single mother of three young children says she is no closer to an answer.

The state’s education department has told her they are still working on collecting eligibility data and the social services department will then need to process and issue the benefits.

“But they’ve been saying that since last year,” said Moorehead, who lives in St. Louis.

“For them to be not rushing the benefits out the door to people who really need them, like myself, is very depressing,” she said. “Because you’ve got to figure out where that next meal is going to come from.”

With the rising cost of food and a limited budget, Moorehead has had to make sacrifices to feed her children — sometimes not paying her full utility bill in order to put food on the table, or borrowing money from family and friends.

She can only visit her local food bank once a month, and said lately she has been “lucky” to get “one box with a couple of cans” there.

Her children’s school district is short on buses, so she has to pay someone to pick them up from school. It all adds up, and each month without the benefits, she becomes more worried they will never arrive.

“It’s just too long,” she said, “These benefits were supposed to be for last year.”

Moorehead and thousands of other Missouri families are waiting for benefits called summer Pandemic EBT, a federal program administered by the states, which provides a one-time deposit of $391 in grocery benefits for every eligible child to cover summer 2022 costs.

Children who qualified for subsidized school lunches last academic year are eligible, along with children under 6 who qualify for the federal food assistance program SNAP. The state estimated 454,000 schoolchildren and nearly 158,000 children under age 6 qualify for the benefit.

Many states had trouble getting the benefits out in time for the summer — due in part to the challenges of operating an emergency program with shifting federal guidelines each year, that requires interagency collaboration between social services departments and education departments.

But Missouri’s delays have been especially pronounced.

In each of the eight states bordering Missouri, benefits have already been distributed for summer Pandemic EBT. Oklahoma began issuing the benefits in July.

Missouri has made progress toward gathering the necessary eligibility data to begin distributing the benefits, but state officials still will not provide a timeline for when benefits will be disbursed.

“As I have shared several times, we don’t have a set timeline,” Mallory McGowin, spokesperson for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an email last week, though she said the agency is in the “final testing stages” of data and “anticipate administering benefits in the coming weeks.”

Data challenges

A woman with pink hair dressed in black leans against a produce stand in a grocery store that's stocked with fruits, vegetables and juices.
Elizabeth Rembert
Harvest Public Media
Grocery store owners and farmers have noticed shoppers choose local products over national brands as inflation has pushed up prices at big companies. Smaller-scale farmers are more insulated from raising input costs and have been able to keep prices more level.

Last October, the education department said they expected the benefits to be distributed by the end of 2022. None have been issued so far.

One of the main hurdles to getting the benefits out sooner, officials have said, was that the state needed a new data collection portal to track students’ COVID-related absences, for the school-year benefits.

Pandemic EBT includes a more narrowly-targeted benefit for school year 2021-2022 for children who had COVID-related absences — which the state said it needed to administer before the summer benefits and involves more complicated data collection on the part of schools.

The state needed to secure a contract with a vendor to build the portal and test it before schools could submit the data.

The contract wasn’t signed until last August with the vendor, Carahsoft, according to records obtained by The Independent through the Missouri Sunshine Law.

In late August, some states had already begun distributing the benefits, including Michigan, Alabama, and Vermont.

Missouri’s plan to distribute benefits was not approved by the federal government until Oct. 19, at which point it was one of just six remaining states which hadn’t yet been approved.

In November, the state provided the first instructions to school districts on how to submit student data and held training sessions for school nutrition staff in December.

Now, McGowin said, the state is testing data files to ensure they can be processed accurately by the social services department.

Of the handful of large school districts reached by The Independent, Columbia, Lee’s Summit, and Kansas City schools had submitted both the school year and summer eligibility data.

Others, including Springfield and Rockwood, had submitted one but not the other. Parkway, Fox, and St. Joseph had not yet submitted either.

None of the districts reached by The Independent said they had received a timeline from the state.

“When families ask,” said Michelle Baumstark, a spokesperson for Columbia Public Schools, “we tell them we don’t know.”

A spokesperson from Fox School District, JP Prezzavento, said: “The most updated information we have from the state is that benefits will be dispersed at some point in the spring of 2023.”

Several districts shared, too, that collecting and submitting the student absence data had been time-consuming and difficult.

A spokesperson from Mehlville School District, which finished submitting the data, said the district “did not have the luxury of hiring additional staff” so their food and nutrition services director spent “an entire week working to get this data entered.”

Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the income and benefits policy center at the public policy think tank Urban Institute who has studied administration of P-EBT, said nationally it has been challenging for schools to collect more detailed data than they are used to, and then for education departments to collaborate with social service departments.

“If I’m a school district, I have so many other priorities, with trying to manage schools post pandemic shutdown that I can imagine that that’s very challenging for them,” Waxman said. “But ultimately, those two systems do have to work together in order for it to happen.”

‘Desperately needed’

Several of the parents interviewed by The Independent said the extra summer benefits are especially urgent because their monthly SNAP food benefits are stretched thin.

Moorehead’s family, for example, qualifies for SNAP but receives only $487 per month.

Missouri was one of the states that opted to end COVID emergency SNAP allotments earlier than required.

Beginning in March 2020 as a result of COVID, states could raise benefits for SNAP participants by providing emergency supplemental benefits, called emergency allotments, to provide the maximum benefits amount for their household size.

Missouri cut off the additional benefits beginning October 2021, although the state could’ve kept providing them until March 2023, which 32 states did.

Another single mother waiting for the benefits, Aimee Antrim of Springfield, said since receiving a slight raise at work a few months ago, her SNAP benefits have fallen to $377 per month for her family of four.

The P-EBT money “would allow me to be able to make all my other bills on time, for at least a month,” Antrim said, because she wouldn’t have to devote so much of her income to food. The boost would allow her to afford to buy food in bulk, which she said would be more cost efficient, and keep her family “stocked up for a few months.”

Atrim said when she reaches out to her school or the state to ask about the benefits, she is often redirected.

“It’s like nobody knows what’s going on,” Antrim said, “and there’s a lot of families destitute and needing a lot of help with food right now.”

Antrim and other parents have been corresponding about the benefits online — trying to share information where it is scarce.

“It’s just desperately needed or we wouldn’t be reaching out to find out where it’s at,” she said. “My standpoint is that they’re leaving us all out in the cold — no answers.”

This story was originally published in the Missouri Independent.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent. She previously wrote for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and is a Report for America corps member.
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