Missouri families who were promised emergency pandemic grocery funds last summer are still waiting -- even as another summer is beginning.
For more than six months, families have been raising alarm about the delayed benefits owed to around 600,000 kids.
There is, in Missouri, no clear end in sight.
Pandemic EBT is a federal program administered by states. Last summer, it was designed to provide a one-time deposit of $391 per eligible child in grocery benefits to assist low-income families. The benefits, like the regular federal food stamps program, could be used like a debit card, called electronic benefit transfer, to purchase eligible food.
The extra benefits could easily double the amount a low-income family receives in standard food assistance. The average amount of benefits per Missouri household on food stamps, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was just under $400 in March.
A family with three eligible kids is waiting for more than $1,000 in grocery aid from the state.
One mother has been checking her children's accounts every morning for months to see whether the money has arrived.
The education department has told the Independent that benefits are on the horizon, or that there is no timeline, for months.
In October, the education department said it expected the benefits to be distributed by the end of 2022.
In February, a spokeswoman for the department said, "We don't have a set timeline," but expected benefits to be doled out "in the coming weeks."
"We continue working with (the Department of Social Services) to get the summer benefits processed but we do not have an exact date at this time," an official with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which administers the benefit, wrote this week in an email to one mother who provided the correspondence to the Independent.
This week, the department issued a statement to the Independent saying, "Teams are in the final stages of testing data files so that (the Department of Social Services') system can administer the summer benefits."
The agency did not provide a timeline.
Children who qualified for subsidized school lunches in the 2021-2022 academic year are eligible, along with children under 6 who qualify for the federal food assistance program SNAP.
The state estimated 454,000 schoolchildren and nearly 158,000 children under age 6 qualify for the benefit.
Many states had trouble getting the benefits out in time for last summer -- due in part to the challenges of operating an emergency program with shifting federal guidelines each year, that requires interagency collaboration between social services departments and education departments.
But Missouri appears to be among few (if any other) states with approved summer 2022 P-EBT plans that have not yet begun dispersing benefits.
In each of the eight states bordering Missouri, benefits were already distributed for summer Pandemic EBT by earlier this year. Oklahoma began issuing the benefits last July.
Missouri's plan for distributing the aid was approved by the federal government in late October, after all but five other states had been approved, and many states had finished issuing benefits.
Oregon and Georgia had their plans approved in late October, like Missouri. But unlike Missouri, Georgia began dispersing the benefits in December; Oregon began in March.
Two states: South Dakota and Alaska, did not have approved plans at all.
One of the main hurdles to getting the benefits out sooner, officials have said, was that the state needed a new data collection portal to track students' COVID-related absences, for the school-year benefits.
Pandemic EBT includes a more narrowly-targeted benefit for school year 2021-22 for children who had COVID-related absences -- which the state said it needed to administer before the summer benefits and involves more complicated data collection on the part of schools.
Mallory McGowin, a spokesperson from the education department, said they had begun issuing the school year benefits beginning in February, and "now that school year benefits have mostly been administered (there is some data clean-up still taking place), teams at DESE and DSS have moved on to the summer benefit program." McGowin said they believe they will work with year-round school staff to "address any potential challenges" with data.
One mother still waiting on the benefits is Jennifer Sheils, whose desperation has grown as the months of waiting ticked by.
"Where are the funds that were made available? It is almost the summer of 2023," she wrote in a recent email to the state. "What is going on??"
The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.