In the state’s largest school districts, families wait for last year’s food assistance

Meena Yang, 4, carries breakfast and lunch from the school bus in Glencaren Court in East Anchorage on Friday, March, 20, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Tisha Pike lives in Eagle River with her son, who’s in second grade. Before the pandemic, he got free lunches at his school, Birchwood ABC Elementary. Then, schools went online, and she had to spend more on groceries.

She got reimbursed for those groceries through a federal program called the Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer Program, or P-EBT.

“That stability, and being able to know that I have money coming to make sure that my child has food, it means the world,” she said. “Because I know that’s something that he doesn’t have to stress out about.”

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Students were eligible for P-EBT if they were enrolled in their school’s free or reduced-price meal program, and if the school closed due to COVID. In the Anchorage School District, nearly 14,000 students — about a third of students in the district — meet the requirements for free and reduced meals.

Anthony Reinert, the SNAP Outreach Manager for the Food Bank of Alaska, said it’s meant to make up for those lost meals.

“This is not a benefit in the traditional sense — this is a reimbursement,” he said. “Those children who couldn’t attend school because of the pandemic missed meals that would have been provided through free and reduced meal programs. Those meals then had to be paid for by parents while they ate at home.”

Families can check the Food Bank’s online eligibility calculator to see if they were automatically enrolled for the 2020-2021 school year. Reinert said some families could receive up to $1,800 per child.

Last year’s rollout of the program was plagued with issues and delays. According to the Food Bank of Alaska, just 28 school districts in the state have received P-EBT funds for the 2020-2021 school year. Families in the state’s largest districts — Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Fairbanks and others — are still waiting.

Jo Dawson, the state administrator for the department of education’s child nutrition program, said reimbursing families for spring 2020 was an easier process. That’s because closures were fairly consistent across schools.

“Essentially two weeks in March, four weeks in April, and three weeks in May,” she said. “School year 2021 was all over the map.”

Last year, schools were closing and reopening at different times. Some students switched schools or left their districts. That made the data much more complicated.

Shawnda O’Brien directs the state’s Division of Public Assistance. She said dispersing funds is taking so long because state workers are combing through school district data manually. Automating the process requires using an outdated computer programming language.

“Most of the individuals who have that experience are retired or retiring,” she said. “It’s not something that someone in college would be learning to do.”

Starting from scratch in a more modern programming language would take years. They’ve started that process, but in the meantime, the department is looking nationally for people who can work with the existing system.

“Asking folks to be patient is difficult, especially when it comes to money,” O’Brien said. “The biggest thing we can do is let them know that we’re working on it, and we understand the hardship that it’s placing on families and that we’re working as hard as we can to find a solution.”

Some states have applied for P-EBT again for this school year, but like many states’, Alaska’s application is still pending. For now, families waiting on last year’s funds can check the Food Bank of Alaska’s website for updates or sign up for their emails. 

Until their cards arrive in the mail, parents like Pike will have to keep waiting.  

“Most people have written it off,” Pike said. “I’m never going to get that money. At this point, it’s like beating a dead horse.”

O’Brien said the Division of Public Assistance aims to have a clearer disbursement timeline within the month.

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