As Child Hunger Soars, New Relief Program May Fail To Reach Louisiana's Neediest Children
*Updated 2:00 p.m. Friday June 12, 2020
Congress gave Louisiana more than $170 million last month through an emergency program meant to feed kids who usually receive free meals at school. But with the deadline for enrollment less than a week away, only about 60 percent of eligible children were enrolled.
Other states have had greater success distributing their funds — mostly because they’ve issued at least some benefits automatically. Louisiana is one of just two participating states that requires families of all eligible students to apply for benefits.
The program, Pandemic-EBT, attempts to address the limited reach of school feeding programs during the pandemic by placing the value of missed meals on debit cards. In Louisiana, that comes to $285 per child. Families can then use that money to buy groceries.
P-EBT was approved in mid-March as part of the Families First act, but as of May 15, only about 15 percent of eligible children had received benefits, according to analysis by the New York Times.
Louisiana didn’t receive federal approval to distribute funds until May 14. It opened its application portal a few days later. Families that successfully completed their application prior to May 25, are scheduled to receive benefits this week.
More than 600,000 children were eligible for free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch this spring — that’s about 85 percent of all school-age children. And as the economic impacts of the coronavirus continue to sink in, the number of eligible children is rising.
Louisiana’s Department of Education estimates that nearly 730,000 children were eligible for the program as of this week. But close to 300,000 of those children were not enrolled as of Thursday.
That amounts to more than $80 million in unused funding in a state that suffers from the highest estimated rate of child food insecurity.
Most states automatically issued P-EBT to certain eligible groups. For example, Massachusetts families with school-aged children who normally receive free or reduced-price meals at school did not have to go through a registration process. The same was true for families in Texas and New York who receive SNAP benefits and have a school-aged child.
But in Louisiana, all families have to complete an online application. State privacy laws complicate school districts’ ability to share student information with the Department of Children and Families.
According to Louisiana’s Department of Education, school systems are prohibited from sharing student’s personally identifiable information. They need to “obtain parental consent to verify eligibility” in order to distribute P-EBT.
Application Proves Inaccessible For Many Families
Danny Mintz, an anti-hunger policy advocate for the Louisiana Budget Project, said even when necessary data has been legally available, it hasn’t always been accessible.
“Getting the data together and making sure that it was clean enough to issue the benefits accurately was a very substantial hurdle to getting the benefits out,” Mintz said. “As a result, the solution they landed on was to create an application which all eligible families could use to apply for the benefits.”
While Mintz is glad Louisiana decided to proceed with the program — some states ultimately decided not to distribute P-EBT benefits due to distribution obstacles — he’s concerned with the accessibility of the application process.
Even though schools are required to contact all eligible families, Mintz said it’s likely some families still don’t know that the benefit exists.
“I think the huge downside of this approach is that it's the students who face the highest barriers to food access that are most likely to be left out of the online application,” Mintz said.
He’s talking about families that don’t have computer or internet access, or those who speak little or no English.
The P-EBT application wasn’t available in languages other than English until Mintz’s organization and the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families arranged to have it translated at the end of May, weeks after the enrollment period started.
Finding the translated version isn’t intuitive either. The option to select your preferred language doesn’t take place at the start of the application. Instead, families need to be aware of a small translation link located at the bottom of each page. If they click on that, a translated version opens in a new tab. They then need to toggle back and forth between the application itself and the translated documents.
Other issues have been more technical and administrative. The online application is finicky. It doesn’t work in all web browsers and, if the data entered isn’t a perfect match for information that is already on file, the application won’t submit. That’s because all of the applications that families successfully submit are automatically approved. There’s no separate verification process.
Cultural, Language Barriers Mean Some Schools Have Incorrect Information
Cristiane Rosales Fajardo works with New Orleans’ Latinx and undocumented community as the director of El Pueblo Nola / Nola Village. P-EBT is one of few benefits that’s available to all children regardless of immigrations status.
Fajardo said she’s been contacted by hundreds of families. Many of them need help navigating the application, but she says the bigger problem is that their children’s information — like name, birthdate and gender — frequently doesn’t match what the school has on record. Fajardo said it’s been an absolute nightmare for families.
“We understand that human error occurs,” Fajardo said. “The problem is cultural competency. Schools have not been trained on how to work with our families.”
In the process of talking to schools on behalf of families, Farjado said she’s discovered all sorts of errors: double last names recorded as middle names, boys registered as girls, spelling errors, incorrect birth dates and more.
This means that even if a family inputs all of the correct information, the P-EBT form could tell them they’re wrong based on errors their school made when their child was originally registered.
El Pueblo Nola / Nola Village has helped more than 200 families complete their applications, mostly by tracking down school employees willing to share the information they have on record. With Monday’s deadline quickly approaching, Fajardo still has 50 applications to complete. She doesn’t know if she’ll be able to finish them all on time.
The stakes are incredibly high for the families Farjado is working with. Louisiana is about to lift a moratorium on evictions. Fajardo said her families need P-EBT to feed their kids, that way they can save their money for rent.
“[P-EBT] is not just a meal, it’s a lifeline,” Fajardo said.
For residents who aren’t dealing with language or cultural barriers, the application has still been incredibly cumbersome.
New Orleans resident Dasha Corner said it took her two weeks to submit an application for her teenage daughter and 13-year-old niece. Every time she hit the submit button, she’d get a yellow error message.
With each new error message, Corner said her stress grew. Her family has been relying on a local food pantry to help make ends meet. She said the items there are canned and sometimes expired — she needs money to buy fresh food.
As the deadline grew closer, Corner said she tried using multiple phones, a laptop, and a desktop computer to submit her application, but every time she hit submit, she got an error message. She called the Department of Children and Family Services for help, but they told her they couldn’t take her information over the phone. Their advice was to just keep trying.
The original enrollment deadline passed on June 8, but LDOE and DCFS decided to extend it to next week. Corner kept trying and finally, with the help of a local nonprofit she was able to submit her application.
“If they hadn’t helped me, I wouldn’t have got in,” Corner said. “I would have been out of luck.”
She still doesn’t know why she wasn’t able to submit her information herself. For now, she’s anxiously waiting to see if a little white benefit card arrives in the mail.
Louisiana’s P-EBT application portal will remain open until Monday. It was originally scheduled to close on June 8 but was later extended due to low enrollment. The deadline will not be extended again, according to an LDOE and DCFS press release.
Families seeking help with their P-EBT application should call the LAHelpU Call Center at 1-888-524-3578. DCFS has expanded their call center hours to assist families trying to meet the deadline.