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As deadline for summer P-EBT eligibility looms, Tennessee addresses delays

Organizations that usually focus on health and nutrition issues in New York City schools are ramping up efforts to make sure students are fed, but face financial uncertainties of their own.

In Tennessee, more than 700,000 children are eligible for the pandemic food relief program called summer P-EBT, but there have been significant delays dispersing the payments.

Max Gersh/The Commercial Appeal

Tennessee parents and caregivers seeking extra money to cover summer meals have through Saturday to ensure their eligibility in the summer P-EBT program. 

Parents and guardians of students who received free or reduced lunch during the 2020-21 school year or those who apply through their district for the National School Lunch Program by Saturday are eligible for the summer payment of $375 per child. 

The federal aid is administered locally by the Tennessee Department of Human Services, which has not distributed any of the summer P-EBT money, also known as Pandemic-EBT. 

“We are finalizing the details necessary for that and hope to announce a disbursement date soon,” said state spokesperson Sky Arnold. 

“We understand the importance of these benefits and are working to provide them as soon as possible. Tennessee was one of the first 15 states approved for summer P-EBT and there is a lengthy process that has to occur before P-EBT can be provided. This includes working with schools to determine what children qualify and working with our card vendor who disburses benefits,” he added.

In addition to the delays with the summer money, the state is still processing payments that families should have received during the school year. Students eligible for free or reduced lunch during the year who opted for virtual or hybrid learning received Pandemic-EBT money to cover the costs of lunches at home. Many of those payments were stalled because some district-provided data was late or incomplete. 

Shelby County Schools has a streamlined process because every child receives free lunch due to the district’s high number of students living in poverty, but other districts have a more cumbersome task of cross-checking student rolls.

Outdated addresses also have contributed to delays because some families have moved or failed to update their school records, making it more difficult for the state to mail the payment cards. Eligible families are encouraged to ensure that their information is accurate by visiting the state’s P-EBT Parent Portal or calling the P-EBT hotline at 833-496-0661. 

The most significant reason for the delay is the sheer scope of the program, said Signe Anderson, director of nutrition advocacy for the Tennessee Justice Center. 

“A lot of states are behind,” she said. “They’ve pointed to the EBT vendor processing not just Tennessee’s cards but a lot of other states’ cards too.”

According to the state, 765,000 school-age children are eligible for summer P-EBT, and 137,694 children under the age of 6 are eligible through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The Justice Center’s research found that food insecurity spiked in Tennessee during the pandemic from 1 in 7  Tennesseans to 1 in 4.  

“Our parents have shared how much they’re struggling,” said Anderson.

Anderson added that the greater need requires greater administrative muscle to meet the demand. 

“DHS needs more support and especially given all that they’ve been through. It takes a lot to process all of this. I get it. It’s a lot. And also on the school front. You know schools are getting tons of calls, and I know they’ve had a lot on their plates just dealing with the pandemic,” she added. 

“I think the more support that we can give to our schools and even to our state agency the better because it’s important in order to make this process work better for families.”

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