Oatmeal yes, eggs no: Gaps emerge in U.S. anti-hunger push for children

Andy Sullivan
·5 min read
AmberLee McCann with sons stand outside her home in Clarksville, Tennessee

(This March 28 story corrects total cost of program to $10.7 billion in 14th paragraph)

By Andy Sullivan

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (Reuters) - When the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of U.S. schools a year ago, Congress took action to ensure that low-income families whose children received free meals at school would have money to buy food on their own.

But nobody told AmberLee McCann.

The single mother, who cares for foster children along with her two sons, quickly ran through her savings after she quit her jobs at a veterinary practice and a real estate firm because she has underlying health issues and feared catching COVID-19, and money was running low. Trips to the grocery store became an exercise in triage: yes to oatmeal, no to fresh fruit and eggs. One gallon of milk every two weeks, rather than every four days.

"I felt like a complete failure," said McCann, who lives in the Tennessee city of Clarksville, near the border with Kentucky. "I definitely had a lot of depression last year."

McCann, 39, found out about the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program in October, after it had expired. She ultimately was able to secure about $750 in benefits, roughly half of what she calculated she was eligible to receive.

Congress over the past year approved nearly $6 trillion in spending to battle a pandemic that has killed roughly 550,000 Americans and thrown millions of people out of work. It included hundreds of billions of dollars in unemployment aid, welfare spending and direct payments to help people weather the crisis.

Lawmakers loosened guidelines to make it easier for people to qualify for assistance, allowing states to screen applicants over the phone or internet, rather than in person.

Still, the ranks of the hungry in the United States have grown. Roughly 12% of households with children reported not having enough to eat in February, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from 8% before COVID-19 emerged.

UNEVEN PARTICIPATION

Advocates said the pandemic made clear that welfare programs too often set up barriers for those who need help the most.

"It was frustrating, it was burdensome, and it made an already difficult situation even more difficult for many people," said Pamela Herd, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.

Much federal aid is filtered through state governments, and caseloads have varied considerably from state to state.

Kentucky boosted the number of participants in the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program by 21% between February and November, while participation dropped by 17% in Arkansas, government figures show. Likewise, participation in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program rose by 74% in Indiana between February and September and dropped by 37% in Mississippi.

While those programs have been in place for decades, Congress created the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program in March 2020. With most school buildings shut, lawmakers opted to give roughly 30 million low-income students debit cards worth up to $400 to cover the cost of the free meals they had been getting at school.

While total participation figures are not available, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures show the P-EBT paid out $10.7 billion between March and November and served a peak of 12.8 million students in June.

The Brookings Institution think tank estimates the initiative reduced child hunger by roughly a third during the spring and summer, and experts view it as a surprising success.

"The bottom line is P-EBT works and it works well," said Dottie Rosenbaum of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank.

But as with other programs, success varied considerably by state.

Some, like Michigan and Indiana, were able to get benefits to eligible children within weeks, USDA figures show. Others took months.

Tennessee, like 20 other states, required families who were not already enrolled in other welfare programs to fill out an application. That proved to be a major barrier for many families who lacked internet access or, like McCann, did not know the benefit was available.

As the program was due to expire at the end of September, 240,000 children - a third of those eligible - still had not gotten benefit cards. The state mailed those cards to schools for families to pick up, but 60,000 of them were sent back unclaimed.

"It's frustrating just knowing there's support there and it's taking so long for families to receive it," said Signe Anderson of the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit group that serves low-income families.

Tennessee Department of Human Services spokesman Sky Arnold said the applications were necessary because the state was not able to get student information when schools were closed. The program ultimately reached 765,000 students, Arnold said, more than it initially thought would be eligible.

No applications were needed for a second round of benefits in the fall that reached 368,000 students.

Congress renewed the program in October, but then-President Donald Trump's administration did not provide clear guidelines on who should qualify, as some schools had returned to in-person learning. Lawmakers provided clearer guidance in December, but as of this month only 29 states had been approved to distribute benefits that should have gone out months ago.

In Tennessee, officials are saying the new round of benefit cards will go out soon. This time, those qualified will not have to fill out an application.

McCann said she would welcome the aid when it arrives, but it will not make up for the belt-tightening months last year when she struggled to put food on the table.

"I hurt for the kids," McCann said, "because it wasn't for me - it was for them."

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)