Virtual Eating

During the pandemic, the country has been occupied, and rightly so, with the special risks and needs of certain groups, such as medical workers, the elderly, the unemployed and minorities, who have been affected more than others. Many who were initially left out of the government response have since received more attention. This is a good thing — at least for the survivors.

There is another rather large group, though just as easily identified, which has been suffering inordinately and is still left out — the children of poor families.

“Millions of low-income schoolchildren have gone almost an entire semester without receiving federal payments to help their families buy groceries — months after Congress authorized the aid — even as child hunger reaches record highs in the U.S.,” as Politico described the situation on Sunday.

What happened?

It would be inaccurate to say that nothing happened — that the plight of these kids was ignored by hard-hearted politicians and bureaucrats straight out of Victorian England. But it would not be inaccurate to say that next to nothing happened.

The program known as Pandemic-EBT was effectively stopping the gap during the spring and summer. An estimated $8 billion was distributed to families across the country on debit-like cards to make up for the breakfast and lunch available at school during normal times.

But when Pandemic-EBT expired and an extension was called for … well, nothing happened. Not, that is, until weeks after schools began reopening. Congress didn’t get around to extending the program until October 1.

But the money could not go out until the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed formulae to govern disbursements in accordance with the complicated and rapidly changing reopening schemes, a national hodge-podge of virtual and in-person learning, which wrought havoc with attempts to determine who was entitled to food assistance and who was not.

It took USDA six weeks to issue a partial guidance for the states, which in turn meant that the states didn’t even begin submitting their plans for approval until early December.

Typically, blame is not welcome in any department. (Unlike Army General Gustave Perna, the head of Operation Warp Speed, who admitted publicly on Sunday that he had “failed” in not giving the states the correct number of vaccines to expect in initial deliveries.)

Congress sent a letter to USDA urging speedy carrying-out of the spending bill. “The stakes could not be higher,” wrote House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow.

But, as mentioned above, it took time to revise the guidelines for the states. State representatives blame the USDA for a lack of clarity in the guidelines, which further delayed things.

Admittedly, the bureaucratic problems were not trivial. One size does not fit all: some schools are fully remote; some are hybrid; some have had to intermittently shut down classrooms altogether due to coronavirus outbreaks and flickering local policymaking. All of which has made calculating how many days’ worth of missed meals each child is entitled to a task of daunting complexity.

As Babs Roberts, director of the Community Services Division in the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, put it, “It’s like a sudoku puzzle.”

The officials can’t be faulted for being conscientious in making the proper adjustments to rapidly changing conditions. If they had not done so, they might well have been blamed later on for maladministration, even catching them in a scandal.

We are, or course, not saying that anybody in the government should have acted recklessly or illegally. But a bigger scissors for cutting the red tape should have been used.

A Warp Speed sense of urgency should have been put in place. That feeling should have coursed through the Congress, the USDA and state agencies entrusted with the responsibility of seeing to it that poor children do not go hungry while officialdom fills out forms.

Incredibly, as of this week, only one state — Massachusetts — has received approval from the USDA to restart P-EBT aid for this school year, according to Politico.

As Hamodia goes to press, the cliffhanger in Washington has ended, and the $900 billion pandemic relief bill finally agreed. According to reports, the deal will raise food stamp (SNAP) benefits by 15% for six months though not expanding eligibility.

The bill will also expand the Pandemic-EBT program to families with children under age 6, deeming them “enrolled” in child care and eligible for benefits. And $400 million are to be allocated to food banks and food pantries through The Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Now it remains to be seen how quickly and efficiently federal and state agencies act to carry out these measures.

Virtual learning during the pandemic has not worked well; virtual eating has not worked at all. It’s time for the government to fix that, and without delay … before the next child starves.