As families battle newfound and existing food insecurity in the wake of coronavirus, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ new Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT) aims to reduce the effects of hunger until schools can reopen.
According to a press release from the NCDHHS, the P-EBT program will provide families who qualify for free or reduced lunch with cards that will be loaded with funds they can use to purchase food.
“Families will receive about $370 in P-EBT benefits per child, provided over two installments. Families can use the P-EBT benefit to purchase food items at EBT authorized retailers, including most major grocery stores,” the release stated.
The release also stated that families who already have Electronic Benefit Transfer cards receive additional funding to be loaded on the card, and families who qualify for the program but do not already have the cards will receive them in the mail.
Sherita Cobb, the director of student support services for Orange County Schools, said that students who are not currently enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program can still participate in the program, including those whose family's financial situation has recently changed because of the pandemic.
“We do have families in the district that the parents just don’t apply for whatever reason for free or reduced lunch, so it's available to them as well, as well as newly unemployed people, so anyone who as a result of COVID-19 has lost their job or their income has been displaced, and that includes undocumented parents in our community as well,” Cobb said.
Christine Cotton works as a consultant with the Food for Students program in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district and is a co-founder of PORCH, a volunteer hunger relief organization based in Chapel Hill. The P-EBT cards can be used alongside other nutrition support programs put on by the local districts, Cotton said
“The P-EBT cards can be used at grocery stores, farmers markets as well as for food delivery services if needed,” Cotton said. “We provide food for breakfast, lunch and snacks and the P-EBT funds could be used to support families with all other food needs.”
Cotton said that CHCCS is distributing food to students at 37 distribution sites across the district where boxed meals are available every day, and delivering meals to high-risk communities.
“We have identified where our at-risk children reside and supported those communities with daily meal deliveries as well as fresh produce boxes and gallons of local milk,” said Cotton. “We support approximately 1,400 students per day with meals.”
Cobb said that the OCS has also been providing meals to students in the district through a distribution site throughout the pandemic.
“We have a breakfast-lunch combination that is provided to students and/or parents who show up to pick it up for their children, but we are not asking them if their child is on free and or reduced lunch; that food is provided for all the children and the families of Orange County Schools,” Cobb said.
Other community food relief organizations have also been working hard to supplement nutritional aid typically provided by the school systems.
One such organization is PORCH, which provides fresh food to 408 local families, most of whom live at or below the poverty line, every week. PORCH also provides food to 15 local food pantries.
Debbie Horwitz, another PORCH co-founder, said that many PORCH volunteers have been helping out at the CHCCS food distribution sites.
PORCH has also been providing grocery gift cards to families instead of boxed meals, Horwitz said, in order to keep the organization’s volunteers safe.
Horowitz said she is glad NCDHHS has started the P-EBT program because it is especially important to address food insecurity given the current high rates of unemployment.
“The free and reduced lunch program in CHCCS is about 28 percent or so of the population, and those numbers are only going up with the current situation and people’s loss of jobs, and it is a relief that they are coming up with new ideas about how to serve people,” Horwitz said.
Families who are looking to pick up meals can find more information on the distribution locations and times here for OCS and here for CHCCS. Families looking to apply for P-EBT can look here for more information.
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