Missouri turns down millions in federal food aid for low-income children

HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 15: Cartons of eggs are seen for sale in a Sprouts Farmers Market on August 15, 2022 in Houston, Texas. Egg prices steadily climb in the U.S. as inflation continues impacting grocery stores nationwide. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The state said over 259,000 children have been issued summer 2022 P-EBT benefits so far, and 55,600 have not been issued benefits due to data issues and missing information. | Brandon Bell/Getty Images

After struggling for nearly a year to get federal food assistance to qualified low-income families, Missouri has decided not to participate in this summer’s program — forgoing tens of millions of dollars in federal aid.

The problems administering the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program, or P-EBT, played a major role in the decision not to participate this year. Missouri education officials are not confident new money could be dispersed by a Sept. 30 deadline.

“As many Missouri families can attest, there have been a number of challenges throughout the process due to the federal requirements associated with accessing and administering the benefits,” said Mallory McGowin, a spokesperson for the Department of Elementary and Education, which administers the program, “coupled with the limitations of our current state and local data collection systems.”

P-EBT is a federal COVID relief program administered by states that has operated in various forms since 2020 to provide extra food benefits to kids, which are loaded onto cards and used like the food stamp program. 

This summer’s program would’ve provided $120 for food to any child who was eligible for free or reduced lunch during the last school year.

McGowin said in the 2021-2022 school year, roughly 356,000 students qualified for free or reduced lunch. 

If that held true for the next school year, that would mean the state is missing out on $42.7 million dollars in aid.

Challenges collecting and sharing data between agencies caused the major delays in getting last year’s money to eligible children.

“It’s just really upsetting to see the dysfunction in the outdated data systems and the dysfunction of the communication between different departments and sharing of data,”  said Christine Woody, food security policy manager at the advocacy organization Empower Missouri.

“[That] is ultimately what they said is the reason why all these kids aren’t going to get food this summer — when lots of other states are able to make it work and make it happen,” Woody said.

April Shields, a mother of a 13-year-old in the Kansas City area just received last summer’s benefits one month ago. She called the news “ridiculous” and said that she learned the state would be turning down this summer’s money from the media instead of state officials.

“You basically just robbed us of a benefit that you didn’t have to do anything for it but just to do your job,” Shields said.

“Most of us are working class and if we don’t have a paycheck for a month, everything goes to hell,” she said. “So I think that it’s really unfortunate that a decision is being made for us when there’s children out here who don’t know what they’re going to eat when they go home in the evening.”

  April Shields and her 13-year-old son (Photo provided).

System issues

At least 40 other states were approved by the federal government to participate in this summer’s P-EBT program.

Other states not proceeding in the program, including Alaska, Mississippi, Texas, and Idaho, pinned their decision on staffing issues and the argument that the program was meant for COVID disruptions that are no longer occurring, among other reasons, according to CNN.

Missouri’s education department has largely cited administrative hurdles to dispersing the benefits — which requires coordination between schools, the education department and social services department. The state needed to gather eligibility information about students in a form it didn’t previously collect and share data across platforms that didn’t necessarily share the same format.

Other states faced administrative challenges last year to dispersing the benefits over the summer — but most dispersed them just a few months later.

Missouri began dispersing summer 2022 benefits in June of 2023 and was among the last states to do so. 

The state needed to create a data portal from scratch to collect student eligibility information from schools to share with the education department and then the social services department and federal government. That contract wasn’t signed until last August with the vendor, Carahsoft, according to records obtained by The Independent through the Missouri Sunshine Law. 

At that point, some states had already begun distributing the benefits.

“I know state agencies have been working really hard to get it done,” said Madison Eacret, coordinator of public policy at Operation Food Search,  the Missouri-based hunger relief advocacy group. “But they need the support: to have the staff and the systems to ensure that we can accomplish the administration of the benefits.”

“It’s no small thing to say we need you to collect all this data and administer all these benefits,” Eacret said. “But it is so important that it gets done that we need to figure out a good system in order for it to happen.”

Kelsey Boone, senior child nutrition policy analyst at the D.C.-based Food Research & Action Centerwho has studied P-EBT policy nationally, said states varied widely in establishing the proper infrastructure to disperse the benefits.

“Some states never fully developed a permanent infrastructure to handle the disbursement of these funds,” Boone said. 

“And what we’ve seen is some states have just had a backup…distributing these funds. Some of the systems are not fully in place, which is cause for concern, especially heading into the permanent summer EBT program that we’ll be getting next,” Boone said.

Beginning next summer, the program will be made permanent federally, with $40 in benefits per month of summer vacation. States can choose whether or not to opt in. 

McGowin pledged that going forward the state will “focus on implementing the system changes necessary to facilitate participation in summer EBT programs in future years.” 

But for Missouri to participate in next year’s program, “the state’s data collection systems need to be addressed well in advance,” McGowin said.

“The current P-EBT programs have required data to be collected from schools that DESE does not normally collect,” she said. “We must then address how the data can be most efficiently and effectively shared with DSS, and shared in a way that more seamlessly integrates with DSS’ benefit administration systems.”

Woody said the state’s pledge to make changes to better operate the program in future years is “the only bright spot.”

“’I’m hopeful that that actually happens,” Woody said, “But overall, it’s definitely disappointing.”

It is not yet clear whether the state will make a public announcement it plans not to proceed with the program — the state did not respond to the question.

For months, participants in P-EBT raised concerns about a lack of communication from the state about when to expect last summer’s benefits. Frustration grew as families have sought and failed to receive information from the state, devoting hours to trying to find out where the benefits were and sharing information online, while managing tight budgets. The state provided no timeline for months, after originally estimating the benefits would be dispersed by the end of 2022.

Eacret said she hopes the state adopts clearer communication with participants, including to inform them of this decision.

“Families just need that kind of information so they can plan for their budgets or they’re not waiting around and thinking that it will be coming at the end of the summer,” she said.

  A sign noting the acceptance of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images).

Over 100,000 children waiting for summer 2022 benefits

The state said over 259,000 children have been issued summer 2022 P-EBT benefits so far, and 55,600 have not been issued benefits due to data issues and missing information. That version of the program was for $391 per eligible child. 

The state is still working through the student benefits before they issue benefits for kids under 6 – summer 2022 P-EBT included kids under six but summer 2023 would not have.

McGowin said they anticipate “nearly 158,000” children under six will receive the benefits.

They plan to issue benefits for kids under 6 after completing dispersal for the student population. 

One mother of three in St. Louis, Marie Moorehead, said she’s not yet received benefits for her two kids under age six.

To hear from a reporter that the state turned down summer 2023 money added “insult to injury,” Moorehead said.

“I’m just deeply upset,” she said, “because they already took a little over a year to pay out for the previous approval for the $391 that a lot of families received and a lot more still waiting, including myself.”

Her family has struggled to afford food, Moorehead said, especially as prices have risen.

“To just take away that extra boost of security to ensure people were able to pay for milk for their babies, whatever it may be, vegetables, fruits, and knowing how high [the cost of food] is, is ridiculous,” Moorehead said. “These officials have let these parents and children down a lot.”

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