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90,000 Missouri kids are eligible for food aid they haven’t claimed that’s about to expire

A man looking at a fridge in a grocery store.
Bruce Bennett
Getty Images
A pandemic era-benefits program dispersed $391 per eligible child last year, to cover summer 2022. Those benefits begin expiring March 7, so eligible families that lost the card or never received one have a short window of time to request a new one.

Missouri families who haven’t claimed food benefits in a program launched during the height of the pandemic could lose out in the coming weeks unless they act quickly.

Federal pandemic-era summer food benefits, referred to as P-EBT, were designed to help cover costs in summer 2022 but did not begin being disbursed in Missouri until May of 2023. The benefits provide a one-time deposit of $391 per eligible child on a debit card called electronic benefits transfer that can be used to buy groceries.

The program was intended to help families afford food in the summer, without subsidized school meals.

Now, those benefits are set to expire — for some families, as early as March 7. Thousands of eligible families have not yet used them. The state estimates that $36.7 million of benefits has not yet been accessed by families, according to records obtained by The Independent under Sunshine Law, which is equivalent to benefits for over 90,000 kids.

That’s part of a broader trend: Advocates nationally have said that states could have conducted more outreach to inform families of the pandemic benefits, so they would expect and use them.

The state social services agency has said it did all it could to publicize the benefits — working with schools, sending letters to affected households, issuing press releases and using their social media and websites to keep participants up to date.

P-EBT was a new, temporary program that changed each year of the pandemic, so families may not have understood what they were, weren’t expecting them and potentially threw the cards away. Other eligible families may not have received their cards in the mail to begin with, if the state didn’t have the correct address on file.

In Missouri, nearly 25,000 benefits cards were returned in 2023, meaning the state and schools may not have had the correct address on file, according to records obtained under the Sunshine Law and provided to The Independent by David Rubel, an education policy consultant from New York who has been tracking unclaimed P-EBT benefits nationwide.

The largest group of benefits expirations in the state will occur between March 7 and April 18, though expirations will continue through September and are staggered depending on when the state issued benefits to the family. Benefits expire 274 days after they were issued. The state sends out letters to families at least one month before expiration to warn them.

Families who believe they are eligible but didn’t receive or claim benefits can request new cards by phone. Cards generally take two to three business days to arrive, though the state tells participants it will be five to seven business days for a buffer.

With a possible deadline looming, families would need to call as soon as possible to access benefits.

Children who qualified for subsidized school lunches in the 2021-2022 academic year are eligible, along with children under 6 who qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, during that period.

Christine Woody, director of Empower Missouri’s food security policy program, said Missouri’s delayed benefits disbursal could have contributed to confusion and affected the rate of families redeeming the benefits. Benefits for summer 2022 were dispersed “a whole year later,” she said — at the same time that people were hearing the state wouldn’t be participating in the version of the program designed to cover summer 2023.

Families may have thought the benefits they were receiving at that time were fraudulent, she said, or could have forgotten about the delayed prior year’s benefits. The last of the summer 2022 benefits were distributed in December.

The reason the benefits were so delayed was due to administrative issues, including the need to set up a data portal from scratch. The state declined tens of millions in federal aid to run a summer 2023 benefit program in part because officials lacked confidence they could disperse those benefits before a federal deadline.

Missouri is now working to set up a new permanent federal program, rather than one tied to the COVID pandemic, that will provide $40 in food benefits per summer month, per eligible child. Children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year will be eligible for the program, called Summer EBT, as part of a package approved and made permanent by Congress last year.

Missouri needs to fund half the administrative costs, and the federal government will fund the other half plus the cost of the benefits themselves.

In the supplemental budget request, Missouri’s social services department requested $2.65 million to fund the program: Half of that would be paid for with state revenue and the other half by the federal government.

If the legislature approves the funding, Woody said, the issues with benefits not being used are unlikely to persist. The summer program is an “entirely different program” from the temporary P-EBT program, she said, with different federal assistance and funding. Rather than a temporary program with ever-changing federal guidance, the new program will be permanent, enabling more consistent messaging to participants.

“I don’t believe that will be the case in 2024 and beyond,” Woody said, “because I think there’s going to be some changes in how the program is run, how it’s administered, the timeline and all that sort of thing.”

Woody said the “key to making this successful” will be clear, frequent and concise communication to families from the state and schools about their benefits.

The state needs those administrative funds to get approval from the federal government before they can proceed with the program, said Baylee Watts, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Social Services.

Watts said DSS and the state education department are working “to ensure a smooth process should the program have approval,” with data solutions, and they are planning communication and outreach strategies.

The current plan is those receiving SNAP won’t need a separate summer EBT card, Watts said. And those not on SNAP will need to apply for the benefit, she said, “which would give us their current address information.” Only the head of household will receive a card rather than one per child, Watts said, under their current proposal, which will reduce the number of cards needed to be issued.

This story was updated at 1:20 P.M. 

The Missouri Independent is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy. It is staffed by veteran Missouri reporters and is dedicated to its mission of relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Jefferson City are made and their impact on individuals across the Show-Me State.
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