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$182 million in pandemic food aid is going unused in California

Fresh produce at a farmer's market in Sacramento.
Andrew Nixon
Fresh produce at a farmer's market in Sacramento.

At least $182 million of pandemic food aid in California has gone unused, according to a recent audit. That amounts to some 500,000 unused benefit cards for the 2019-20 school year

The California State Auditor analyzedthe California Department of Social Services’ use of federal funds for two food assistance programs: the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer cards and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as CalFresh.

The P-EBT cards are issued to families whose school-aged children qualify for free or reduced-price meals and haven’t been able to get them due to the pandemic. They are also available for families with children under six who also received CalFresh benefits between October 2020 and August 2021.

Families who qualify for CalFresh — which supports low-income households in buying groceries — were able to get P-EBT, along with additional CalFresh payments. While the state has efficiently distributed SNAP funds, according to the audit, P-EBT card payments only experienced timely delivery in the earlier months of the pandemic.

“Families have had to wait an average of more than 200 days to receive payments that replaced missed meals from school year 2020-21,” wrote state auditor Elaine Howle.

Howle said her office found that the P-EBT delays were caused by unclear federal expectations, the timing of federal legislation and technology constraints.

The audit ultimately recommended that CDSS notify schools about families’ unused payments so they can follow up with those families.

Albert Goldberg, communications manager for Sacramento City Unified School District, said that the district has used social media posts to inform families about P-EBT benefits. The district also sent direct mail about the benefit cards in multiple languages to families, according to Diana Flores, the district’s director of nutritional services, warehouse and future central kitchen.

Another way SCUSD works to inform families about the food benefits they might be eligible for — and how they might be used — is by working with the Food Literacy Center, a nonprofit that runs cooking classes and other programs to help encourage kids from low-income families to advocate for more nutritious foods. By extension, the center also urges families to use their benefits.

Founder Amber Stott says the classes include an entire lesson on advocacy, where kids prepare “rainbow soup” with the vegetables they like, and are given a take-home sheet with information about local farmer’s markets carrying those vegetables that accept benefits cards.

“If they fall in love with vegetables, we want to help them ask the adults in their life for those vegetables,” Stott said.

If you qualify, here’s how to make sure you’re getting your P-EBT benefits card

  1. Make sure you’ve applied to get free or reduced-price school meals and CalFresh. At Sac City Unified, enrolled students automatically qualify for P-EBT, whether or not they are eligible for CalFresh, are foster students or are homeless, since all SCUSD schools offer free meals. Students who just started school for the first time in 2020-21 are not eligible. 
  2. Update your mailing address via the CalFresh website or, 
  3. Keep an eye out for your card — P-EBT cards for eligible school children began arriving mid-August and will be mailed out through the end of November.

What if I lose my P-EBT card? Who should I call?

P-EBT isn’t run through school districts, so you can’t call your kid’s school — you’ll have to call CDSS.

You can get a replacement card by calling the P-EBT helpline at (877) 328-9677 any time from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. You’ll need your child’s name, date of birth and mailing address.

Where will my card be mailed if I’m experiencing homelessness?

Your card will be mailed to the address CalFresh has on file, which might be the local county social service office. If your county social service office is offering mail pick-up, contact the county for information about picking up your P-EBT card.

You can also double-check the address by calling the P-EBT helpline.

How does P-EBT work?

When your card arrives in the mail, follow the instructions to set up your PIN. The P-EBT card functions like a debit card; you’ll select EBT at check-out, swipe your card and use your PIN number.

P-EBT can be used to buy any CalFresh eligible food.

Will using P-EBT hurt my immigration status?

No, it will not.

Do my P-EBT benefits expire?

Your P-EBT benefits will expire a year to the date that your P-EBT card was issued, but don’t throw away your card, since it will be automatically reloaded with new benefits if they become available.

For more questions about P-EBT, you can visit the P-EBT website.

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