Lunchtime (copy)

School lunch is served in this file photo. Idaho has now been approved to participate in a federal grant program for families whose children missed out on free- or reduced-price school lunches during the COVID-19 pandemic. Idaho is the last state to receive the funds, which are being paid retroactively.

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Idaho was the last state to start, but it will begin sending out retroactive payments Tuesday to families with children eligible for free- or reduced-price school lunches who missed out on those meals during school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. Idaho Health & Welfare Deputy Director Lori Wolff told the Board of Health & Welfare today, “We did finally get a plan in place and it was approved by the feds.” You can read my full story here at idahopress.com (subscription required), or pick up Friday's edition of the Idaho Press.

Idaho will be distributing about $302 per child to about 127,000 children, Wolff said. “So we expect to distribute, over a couple of weeks, $38 million to families.”

“It was a federal grant to issue benefits to kids while they weren’t in school,” Wolff told the board. “Idaho was late implementing this program, as we were juggling many of the other implementations. One of the biggest challenges of this program is that the school districts actually manage the school lunch program, and the Department of Health & Welfare manages the benefit. So they have the data and we have the avenue to spend the money on the cards.”

Families that already are receiving SNAP, or food stamp benefits, don’t need to apply for the program, which the feds have dubbed P-EBT for Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer; if they’re eligible, the additional funds will just show up on their cards. “There will be no application process,” Wolff said. “All families will receive the benefit. They will get it regardless of whether or not they know to apply, so it’s a little more streamlined and hopefully will cut out some of the burden on families.”

According to the USDA, all 49 other states and the District of Columbia already have been approved for the payments, which were scheduled to run through August. They are for children whose school was closed for at least five consecutive days due to a public health emergency; every state qualified. The funds were made available under the federal CARES Act. 

Wolff said news just came today that the benefit may be extended into September. “The feds just announced today that they are looking to extend that P-EBT benefit into September,” Wolff told the board. “We don’t have all of the details on that yet. The challenge with that is going to be there’s a contingency if they’re in school, then obviously they get lunch. But if they’re not in school, and they do all-online, then they could be eligible.”

“We will have to sort that out by school district, because everyone is potentially doing something different,” she said, including some districts using hybrid models or alternating days in-person and online.

Wolff said all P-EBT payments must be out by Sept. 30. “So we have a call this afternoon with the feds to get more information on that. There’s still lot of questions there.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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