MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The federal government gave Tennessee about $180 million to help families who benefited from free school lunches but couldn’t get those meals when the pandemic closed schools this spring.
Most states mailed these credits to families immediately but in Tennessee, thousands of families are still trying to get these vital benefits months later.
When the pandemic closed schools in March, Astra Vaughan had to quickly balance her budget.
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“I have four girls, and they can eat! They can eat,” said Vaughan, a parent in Memphis.
Vaughan said she doesn’t receive SNAP benefits, so she applied for the Pandemic-EBT program with the state in June. The state says each card is worth about $250.
Vaughan said the application process was easy, but getting a card that worked was another story. She said she’s gotten a couple of P-EBT cards but they weren’t the right amount and she applied for credits for all four of her children.
“My husband, he has told me to give up, give up. They’re not going to send us the stuff, and I said ‘I’m not giving up, they owe us that.’ If they’re giving it to us, they owe us and we’re going to get it,” said Vaughan.
And Vaughan isn’t the only one who had trouble getting the benefits. The Tennessee Justice Center is a non-profit that worked with families trying to apply for the program.
“I think there’s been a bit of an education process as well. Not everybody knows what P-EBT is or that their family’s eligible for it, so I think there was a lot of information that needed to be given out to families in order for them to even know that P-EBT existed to help their families,” said Signe Anderson, Nutrition Advocacy Director for Tennessee Justice Center.
FOX13 Investigator Kirstin Garriss went to Nashville to get some answers and talked one-on-one with outgoing Tennessee Department of Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes.
She said Tennessee was one of 17 states that initially used an application process to avoid potential fraud.
“Not having the most up-to-date information on where families reside, where they live and making sure those dollars truly get into the hands of families that need them was the priority for the department,” said Commissioner Barnes.
After several application extensions, the state awarded more than 500,000 qualifying students with P-EBT in the first round of cards - 115,000 of those went to Shelby County students.
But there were 244,000 qualifying students who missed the deadline to apply for the first round and that’s equivalent to about $61 million in benefits.
FOX13 asked Commissioner Barnes if the state was potentially forfeiting those millions of dollars if they weren’t given to families. She said that isn’t the case.
“I think there’s a concept of there being dollars attached and the potential for eligibility. The way Tennessee does their eligibility is based upon those who are eligible for free and reduced lunch at schools, as well as those who are community eligible,” said Barnes.
Barnes said there isn’t an application anymore for these credits.
For the second round, she said they sent thousands of P-EBT cards directly to school districts that will distribute them to qualifying families.
A Tennessee Department of Human Services spokesman said approximately 36,000 cards were provided for Shelby County including Shelby County Schools, Collierville Schools, Germantown Municipal School District, Arlington Community Schools, Bartlett City Schools and Millington Municipal School District. He said cards were mailed on differing days and the schools are receiving cards on varying days.
The state said any cards that aren’t picked up after 30 days will be returned to the Department of Human Services for disposal.
Vaughan doesn’t believe that’s enough time.
“I don’t think it’s smart for them to do the 30 days and just forget about all these people, especially the families that you know, really, really need it more than I do,” she said.
Commissioner Barnes said the 30-day turnaround rule goes back to avoiding potential fraud.
“We want to make sure we are appropriately destroying those cards because again the main purpose is getting the dollars into the hands of those who truly need them,” said Barnes. “I would say families have been given every opportunity to gain those dollars. You know I think there are a lot of families out there whose circumstances have changed. They may have moved out of state. They may no longer necessarily need those dollars, so I think that’s being actually very fiscally responsible for Tennesseans.”
As of early November, a department spokesman said they hadn’t destroyed any returned P-EBT cards.
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Barnes said there is a possibility the P-EBT program could cover families who are in virtual learning for the rest of the year.
But she said that is up to Congress since this is federal funding, separate from the CARES Act.
Commissioner Barnes will be serving as DHS Commissioner until November 20.
The Education Trust in Tennessee is another nonprofit advocating for families during this process:
As Pandemic EBT has been extended through the 2020-21 school year and expanded to cover children under five years old, it is paramount that state agencies are better prepared to provide these nutritional supports—and to provide them quickly. We encourage state agencies to utilize existing data to directly issue benefits by mailing EBT cards to homes and utilizing schools as trusted communicators between the state and families. It is critical that Pandemic EBT is implemented with fidelity and that children and students receive nutritional supports that bolster retention, provide energy, and build a foundation for academic growth and success during this unprecedented time. - Gini Pupo-Walker, State Director, Education Trust in Tennessee
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