Colorado will pay parents for the meals their kids didn’t get at school during COVID

Beginning next month, Colorado’s state government will send $200 million in federal money to the parents of 300,000 children, compensating them for meals their kids did not receive at school due to remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic.

The money is part of the federal Pandemic-EBT program, which was created during the early days of COVID-19 last spring and extended in September to pay low-income parents for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year in districts where students are attending classes online.

But the rollout has been slow at the federal level due to logistical issues. Colorado’s plan was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday — six weeks after it was submitted and seven months into the school year — and retroactive payments will begin rolling out in late May, after the school year ends in most of Colorado.

“This program puts money directly into parents’ pockets at a time when they’re seeing increased food costs, when children are eating more meals at home, and when (parents) are seeing reductions in income from layoffs and furloughs, fewer tips or fewer hours,” said Teva Sienicki, the CEO of Metro Caring, an anti-hunger group in Denver.

“We’ve heard that a lot of families have really racked up a lot of debt during this period, are falling behind on rent, have maxed out their credit cards, just trying to meet basic needs,” Sienicki added.

The parents of students who received free or reduced-price meals at school in either the 2019-2020 school year or the current school year will qualify for the money, which must be spent on food. A formula will be used to determine how many school days a student spent at home and reimburse parents accordingly.

The government will pay $6.82 for each day of remote learning. With an average of 20 school days per month, that is $136 per month or $1,224 per child for a nine-month school year. For students who participated in hybrid learning, the average rate will be $82 per month, or $737 for the school year.

Colorado’s Department of Human Services is tasked with doling out the money, to arrive in three batches — late May, late June and late July.

“We have to be careful not to saturate the (Colorado) retailer market with $200 million in a single week,” said Karla Maraccini, director of food and energy assistance at CDHS. “That would potentially cause a lot of problems. We could potentially have (grocery store) shelves go bare with all that shopping.”

The phased-in cash also will help the department to notice and stop erroneous payments before all money is out the door, according to Maraccini.

Parents who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits will see the money on their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. Parents who do not receive SNAP benefits will receive EBT cards in the mail and should make sure now that their current address is on file with their child’s school, Maraccini says.

The state provided nearly $50 million in P-EBT money to the parents of 130,000 children at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, according to Maraccini. On average, those benefits were spent one week after being placed on EBT cards, according to Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy at the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado.

“People needed them then and I know they need them now and I anticipate (the money) will be quickly and summarily used,” Wheeland predicted.

The P-EBT program also allows for payments to parents with children under the age of six, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved few state plans for those payments so far. Colorado’s plan needs to be reworked and resubmitted, likely next week. No dates have been set for younger children’s payments, which will go directly to SNAP beneficiaries, according to Maraccini.

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