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Massachusetts families get a lifeline against hunger: $400 per child, whether they need it or not

US program will cover cost of school meals during the pandemic

Ellen O'Nan/The Paducah Sun via AP/file

The families of roughly half the public school students in Massachusetts will soon receive payments totaling around $400 per child to help them cover the cost of meals on days when the schools were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to nearly $200 million in federal funding from Congress.

About 500,000 public school students are eligible, either because their families are low-income or they go to classes in one of hundreds of school districts statewide where average incomes are low. That would include the students at all 125 Boston public schools.

Starting this month, eligible families will receive the first of two lump sums totaling around $400 on a special Electronic Benefit Transfer card that will arrive in the mail for those who don’t already have one. The payments, which work out to $5.70 a day for school closures from mid-March to mid-June, add up to roughly $1,200 for a family with three school-age children.

“It helps tremendously,” said Michelle Berlin, a 44-year-old mother of two from Northborough who recently received her first payment for her two children. “They eat constantly.”

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The first payments began arriving last week in the accounts of families who already receive EBT benefits — roughly 200,000 students. Administrators have been working with school districts to identify another 300,000 or so students who qualify either because of their family’s income or because they attend a school with a large population of economically disadvantaged students. Those students are scheduled to receive a separate cardm called a Pandemic-EBT or P-EBT card, in the mail by the end of the month.

The Department of Transitional Assistance "has been pursuing all available tools and resources to support individuals and families impacted by this public health crisis,” said Amy Kershaw, commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, in a statement to Globe.

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The pandemic and resulting shutdown have redrawn the contours of American life with astonishing speed, devastating industries and accentuating longstanding inequalities.

But the economic pain hasn’t been felt evenly. Although nearly a quarter of the Massachusetts workforce has filed for unemployment benefits, the rates are considerably higher among Blacks and Hispanics, as well as those without a college degree.

Meanwhile, the state agency saw a nearly 400 percent increase in applications for food benefits through SNAP at the beginning of April, and demands on food banks are skyrocketing: According to a recent report by the University of Arkansas, 38 percent of families in Massachusetts reported food insecurity last March.

“The reality is the food pantry system in Massachusetts can’t feed 38 percent of the people — the only way we can do that is by flexing federal programs like P-EBT,” said Erin McAleer, president of Project Bread, which is assisting with outreach in the P-EBT program.

The expanded EBT program, funded by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, focuses in part on schools in districts such as Boston’s, where a majority of students come from low-income households. When these schools were open, many offered free or reduced-price meals to everyone, regardless of family income. All students in these schools, including those from more affluent households, will receive funds through the expanded P-EBT program.

State data indicate there were roughly 680 such schools in the Commonwealth at the beginning of 2020.

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Transistional Assistance said that each card comes with a unique account and PIN number, so more affluent families can’t transfer or donate their benefit to people in greater need.

“Per federal guidance, if a household determines they don’t want to utilize the benefits, to ensure programmatic integrity they should destroy the P-EBT card,” said DTA spokesperson Chris Power. “P-EBT cards cannot be donated, and access is unique to each household.”

Similar to a debit card, an EBT card can be used to purchase food at stores that are approved to accept the funds. Of course, what a family decides to do with food purchased with the card is up to them, should they want to donate it to a food bank. Unused funds on P-EBT cards will be returned to the federal government after one year.​

State officials say the most difficult people to track down are children from low-income families who don’t currently have an EBT account. To that end, administrators have been working with school districts to identify eligible students.

Boston Public Schools is sending out letters to families this week that provide information about the program. Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the district has already served nearly 500,000 meals via district meal sites and home deliveries.

“As someone who grew up on food stamps as a young child, I know firsthand the safety net that food assistance is to our students and families,” Cassellius said in a statement. “The P-EBT program is another critical step to increasing food security in our community, helping us ensure that no child goes hungry as a result of this public health crisis."

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The P-EBT program adds to a growing list of efforts to combat food instability across Massachusetts, which also includes application help for SNAP benefits, free meals at more than 1,400 school meal sites, and food pantries.

Michelle Berlin, the Northborough mother, said the new program is a crucial bridge now that her children are home all day, eating meals and snacking. But the program provides extra funds only through mid-June, and Berlin wasn’t sure what she’d do if there’s no replacement.

“After that, it’s going to be a stretch if they don’t go somewhere like camp,” she said. “We’re really going to have to get creative.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay