Families worried now that coronavirus-inspired federal food assistance is over with school back in session

The window to apply for a federal nutrition program that provides grocery funds for children who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch has closed because it was always intended as a one-time payment when schools were closed for the summer.

And now, many families who relied on the Pandemic EBT program are wondering what they’ll do without it as the school year starts. 

“It's a hard time right now for us,” said Rosy Vindiola, a widow and mother of three in San Diego who added that affording basic necessities right now is a struggle as she is not working and can’t find a job. “You know, right now we don't even have Wi-Fi. And then I decided, cut off my bill, or buy food. And then when I get the help, I was like, ‘God bless.’”

While schools will continue to offer grab-and-go meals, there are limitations, including for those without childcare, families with parents who aren’t working from home or don’t have flexibility, and those without access to reliable transportation.

Food advocates say that the program, otherwise known as P-EBT, provided reliable, effective aid for food-insecure families, and they want Congress to extend the benefit. Meanwhile, local food banks are overwhelmed with demand and are serving more people than ever as children return to school remotely.

“Essentially it provides families with food resources that they might otherwise have lost,” said Melissa Cannon, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates. “Schools were closed and they lost access to free or reduced-price school meals.”

Cannon said that some of the flexibilities from last spring’s USDA grab-and-go meal guidelines have also been rescinded for the new school year, which could make it more difficult for parents to get the meals.

Maria Sosa of Livermore, who is a single mom who works at Walmart, said that in the absence of daycare and in-person school, where her daughter ate breakfast and lunch, procuring enough food has been a challenge. With the daycare closed, she has to pay for a babysitter to watch her daughter while she’s at work. This expense, paired with the extra food cost of breakfast and lunch for her daughter, has been crippling. 

She said that the P-EBT benefits were a lifeline.

“We were laughing the other day, we were like, ‘Okay, we got an EBT card. So I think we can shop at Safeway,’” Sosa said. “Because we always shop at the 99 cent store or Grocery Outlet.” 

She said that she was happy to afford fresh grapes and apples for her daughter. Sosa said that before receiving the P-EBT card, she supplemented her groceries with provisions from a local food bank. Once the benefits expire, she will once again lean on that resource.

Yolanda Torres, a mother of two in Lemon Grove, Calif. also said that she was happy she could afford fresh fruit for her family with the benefit, which she normally cannot. She said that she will have to look for a part-time job to afford food for her family while they’re all at home. 

Alex Boskovich, a government relations manager at the Alameda County Community Food Bank, said that as people across the country face an “unprecedented” rate of hunger, every bit of aid that goes to children helps.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley is serving twice as many people now as before the pandemic, according to CEO Leslie Bacho. She said that they’re providing food for half a million people a month, and more than half of the folks receiving food from the bank are coming for the first time.

“So many of our clients depend on school breakfasts and school lunch for their kids,” Bacho said. “And even though most of our schools have been providing grab-and-go lunches, sometimes multiple meals a day, it's still been a real challenge for families to access this. And of course, so many people are struggling either from a loss of jobs or from just having their hours cut. And so that Pandemic EBT was really critical.”

Bacho also pointed out that since the cost of living in the Bay Area is so high, and many peoples’ financial situations are rapidly deteriorating, many who need help don’t even qualify for benefits. 

“So many families in our community need assistance who aren't eligible, because they are above the federal poverty level, which is very low for our community, where the cost of living is so high,” Bacho said.

Cannon said that school nutrition programs are also struggling to adapt to the new rules and find ways to serve the kids. She said that she believes schools will face challenges as some consider adopting hybrid learning models, while also dealing with decreased finances and increased safety measures.

“Because a lot of kids will be eating in the classroom, our school nutrition program directors are going to have to figure out a way to check the eligibility of each child in the classroom; it’s probably going to create a lot of stigma around meals even more so than we already have,” she said. 

Andrew Raphael, a family engagement coordinator at the Parent Services Project, helped families enroll in P-EBT, and said he is concerned about children getting enough food in the coming school year without the benefit. He said that while he was grateful that the benefit helped so many children, he was also disappointed that it left out preschool-age children, who normally get free and reduced lunch at public preschools.

He also noted that when he was helping families enroll in the benefit, many were nervous to apply due to their immigration status, even though the benefit is contingent upon household income, and does not factor in a child’s immigration status. 

Meg Davidson, the director of policy and advocacy at the SF-Marin Food Bank, said that she believes people living in mixed-immigration households are facing the most food hardship at the moment, as they don’t qualify for many benefits, and there is also a lot of fear surrounding using benefits they do qualify for. 

Vindiola said that her neighbor, who could have gotten P-EBT as they were eligible, didn’t because they were scared due to their immigration status.

A mother of three who lives in San Rafael, who did not feel comfortable giving her name due to fear surrounding government benefits, said through a translator that the uncertainty of not knowing how long the kids are going to be at home, and when they'll be able to get school lunch again, is tough. She also said that she is still waiting for one of her cards to arrive, and that it will be a huge help once it does.

“It would be great if it was extended into next school year,” she said. “Because these two boys, they really need the food for the next school year.”

Caroline Hart is a reporter for KTVU. Email Caroline at caroline.hart@foxtv.com or follow her on Twitter @Caroline_Hart_.