Grocery aid confusion: Families who qualify told they’d get $0

It’s a problem that could keep a parent awake at night -- how to feed their child when schools aren’t open to provide free meals?

Grocery benefits are now available in Wisconsin through a program called Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT). Families are eligible for up to $6.82 per day per child for meals typically provided by schools, but were not, during virtual learning.

Creating confusion is that many families who qualify for P-EBT got a letter from the State of Wisconsin telling them they’d get zero dollars in benefits.

Vernetta Morris tells Contact 6 she’ll feed any child who visits her Milwaukee home, whether it’s her grandchildren or their friends. Morris is the legal guardian for her grandson, Jaylan, who’s in 9th grade.

Jaylan typically gets free breakfast and lunch at his school. Then, his classes went all-virtual.

"A lot of people are struggling out here really bad for what they need," said Morris. "They lost their jobs because of the pandemic...I see pantry lines long."

Vernetta Morris

Vernetta Morris

A letter sent to Morris by the state says even though Jaylan usually gets free or reduced price meals through his school, he’s eligible for zero dollars in P-EBT. Morris was taken aback by the letter and wrote to FOX6 News.

"I was kind of confused about why he didn't qualify for it," said Morris. "What was the reason for it?"

Morris is not alone in her confusion. The Hunger Task Force tells Contact 6 it’s received thousands of phone calls from families who were told they’re also getting zero dollars in P-EBT.

"We know a lot of families really struggled putting food on the table during the pandemic," said Sherrie Tussler, Executive Director of The Hunger Task Force.

Sherrie Tussler

Sherrie Tussler

The state awarded the first round of P-EBT in March to cover families’ food costs for the months of August to November 2020. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), released $46 million in P-EBT.

Tussler says 158,000 families got letters notifying them that they qualify for P-EBT. At the same time, 168,000 families including Morris, got letters notifying them of the program, but that they qualify for no money.

Elizabeth Goodsitt, a communications specialist for DHS, tells Contact 6 that "some families who should have received benefits didn't."

Goodsitt says these decision were made with "the best information we had available at that time. However, the data we had was incomplete."

One reason for the state’s insufficient data is a DPI survey sent to all schools in January with questions about their virtual status. Families at schools with administrators who did not respond got the zero dollar letter.

"There were 482 schools that didn't respond to the survey," said Tussler.

However, Goodsitt says "every day we receive more accurate and complete information."

After several families in Milwaukee got the zero dollar letter, Milwaukee Public Schools confirmed with the state that all of its schools were operating virtually.

Goodsitt says that families initially told they "would get zero dollars … will now be getting benefits."

Families who got the zero dollar letter may want to take action and call the state, but they don’t have to.

"People will want to take action, but they don't have to take action," said Tussler. "They should wait until May 2nd when there is going to be an issuance to catch up all the MPS families."

The state doesn’t need any more phone calls. A hotline for P-EBT has been overwhelmed, though the state is adding staff to reduce wait times.

Even if her grandson does qualify for P-EBT, Morris says she can feed her family without it. Morris reached out to FOX6 because she worries other families may be struggling more than her own.

"It's hard out here for a whole lot of people," said Morris.

If you think your child qualifies for P-EBT, but you didn’t get a letter, you can file an application here: https://access.wi.gov/s/pebt?language=en_US

To get benefits:

  1. Children must be on record with their school and the state as getting free or reduced price meals.
  2. They have to go do a school that participates in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
  3. Their school must have reported that children learned virtually through a survey sent out earlier this year by DPI.

Chris Bucher, a DPI communications specialist, says the state has been unable to locate addresses for 78,500 students. Under normal circumstances, DPI does not have addresses for any students supported by the NSLP at their schools.

"… that information is maintained at the local level," said Bucher. "The DHS and the DPI were able to find addresses for 80% of these students through the state through data matching with other state systems."

P-EBT funds will be added to existing Quest cards, or sent through the mail on white P-EBT cards, which serve as debit cards.

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Full response from Elizabeth Goodsitt, communications specialist for DHS

P-EBT is a new federal program for children who would normally have received free or reduced price school meals at schools that participate in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP), but didn’t because they were learning from home. The program began last year to cover the last months of the 2019-2020 school year. It was renewed by Congress last fall for the 2020-2021 school year. At the end of March, Wisconsin began providing benefits for meals missed in August, September, October, and November of 2020. To get benefits, children must be on record with their school and the state as getting free or reduced price meals, they have to go to a school that participates in the NSLP program, and their school must have reported that children learned virtually through a survey sent out earlier this year by DPI.

The federal government set up the Pandemic EBT program so that the benefits are provided to families retroactively. And the way USDA designed the program, schools now have to share more information with DPI and DHS than they have in the past. Despite these new requirements, DHS, in partnership with DPI, released $46 million in benefits to families in early March, relying on the best information we had available at that time. However, the data we had was incomplete, and some families who should have received benefits didn’t. DHS and DPI are working hard to get updated information from schools so that all eligible families receive these benefits.

Every day we receive more accurate and complete information. For example, a number of districts have confirmed to DHS that all of their schools were operating fully virtually during the time period (August – November 2020) covered by the most recent benefits issued. This includes some of the largest districts in the state, including the Appleton Area School District, the Green Bay Area Public School District, the Madison Metropolitan School District, Milwaukee Public Schools, and the Racine Area School District. Families of any students in these districts who received a P-EBT notification letter telling them they would get $0 earlier this month will now be getting benefits. New notification letters will be sent and benefits will be provided to these families in early May. These families do not need to take any action at this time.

In order to implement the P-EBT program, the State must have student address data in order to issue benefits. This is not information that DPI or DHS currently collects. Although DHS and DPI have leveraged available state datasets and have been able to verify addresses for more than 80% of potentially eligible P-EBT children, there are some families for whom we still need their information. Families that believe their child meets the P-EBT eligibility criteria but haven’t received a notification letter can use our simplified application to give us information we need to determine their benefits and mail them to the right place. The results of the application will tell them if their child is on our list of Wisconsin children who receive free or reduced price school meals through the NSLP. It will also allow them to provide us with their address that we may not have been able to find through other state databases. A missing address is a common reason why families may have not received a P-EBT notification letter or benefits. The link to the application is here: https://access.wi.gov/pebt.  

We’ve also set up a call line (1- 833-431-2224) and a support email (PEBTsupport@wisconsin.gov) to answer questions and allow families to provide us with more information. After experiencing an overwhelming call volume when the call line opened last week, we’re continuing to add additional staff each day to answer calls and reduce wait times.

DHS is committed to getting P-EBT benefits to all families that qualify. Nationally, many states are struggling to provide P-EBT benefits given the new, more onerous federal requirements. Wisconsin was one of the first 15 states to have a plan approved by FNS, and of those, we were one of the only states without a centralized data base of student-level educational data to submit a plan to provide these benefits. Twenty other states have not even had plans approved by USDA to provide PEBT benefits to children. Moreover, the free and reduced price meals program is not something DHS is normally involved with. To administer PEBT, DHS has had to build a whole new infrastructure to implement a program that meets federal requirements. DHS embraced this challenge to make sure that we are getting Wisconsinites the help they need, and will continue to strive to get benefits to all those eligible.

Full responses to Contact 6 questions from Chris Bucher, communications specialist for DPI

As part of the P-EBT program for the 2020-21 school year, there were new requirements that asked schools to share more information with the DPI and DHS than they have in the past. This includes information on school operations through the school year. The DPI collected data regarding school operations through a survey sent to schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. This information was then shared with the DHS. To implement the P-EBT program and to issue benefits, student address data needs to be obtained. This is not information the DPI, nor the DHS previously collected.

On April 12, the DHS opened an application form where families with students participating in the NSLP can provide additional information to see if they are eligible to receive the P-EBT benefits.

… under normal circumstances, the DPI does not have addresses for any of the students who receive free or reduced price meals supported by the NSLP at their schools – that information is maintained at the local level. The DHS and the DPI were able to find addresses for 80 percent of these students through the state through data matching with other state systems. The 78,500 students are those for whom we were unable to data match through other systems.

The DPI and the DHS are working on filling both of these information gaps via conducting continued outreach to schools and encouraging families who have not received P-EBT notification letters to fill out the DHS P-EBT application.

…. We just recently sent out a second survey to schools to collect data for January, February, and March, which is still in process. Our team is also in the process of contacting individual schools that may have missed entering information into the first survey.

…The DPI and the DHS continue to work together to gather updated information from schools so eligible families can receive the benefits from the program. As noted above, the DHS on Monday launched an application form where families with students participating in the NSLP can provide information needed for the program.

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