By SARAH MANSUR
Capitol News Illinoissmansur@capitolnewsillinois.com
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. JB Pritzker on Tuesday announced new federal funding to expand the state’s food assistance program for school-age children who would normally receive free or reduced-price meals.
Pritzker said the additional funds to the existing Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer Program will help feed 200,000 more children, for a total of about 1 million children who will receive assistance this school year compared to about 764,000 children who received P-EBT benefits the previous school year.
Unlike last school year, families will not need to apply to receive P-EBT but will automatically be enrolled if their child or children already qualify for free or reduced lunch, Pritzker said.
P-EBT benefits will be mailed out to families in a debit card starting next month, and families will receive one card per eligible child. According to the governor’s office, families will receive $6.82 for each day the child did not have access to school meals, an increased from $5.70 for the previous school year.
“Our Department of Human Services is working with the Illinois State Board of Education to determine eligibility and local schools will let individual families know that the assistance is headed their way. Securing this new support for Illinois families from the federal government amounts to more than $750 million,” Pritzker said during his news conference at Washington Elementary School in Springfield.
Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou said the debit cards can be used at grocery stores that accept state and federal welfare benefits. But they cannot be used at restaurants, including fast food places.
The federal Electronic Benefits Transfer, which predates the pandemic, is an electronic system for individuals who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and pay for food using SNAP benefits.
The P-EBT program was created in March 2020, under the federal relief package called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Individuals who receive benefits through SNAP can also receive P-EBT benefits.
Children are eligible for P-EBT if they are enrolled in the free or reduced-price meals program at a school operating the National School Lunch Program. Currently, 48.5 percent of students in Illinois are low-income and qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to data from the Illinois Report Card.
If they are not enrolled in the free or reduced meals program, children will still be eligible for P-EBT if they are in a Community Eligibility Provision, which offers breakfast and lunch free to all students, provided they are without access to an in-school meal, according the state’s P-EBT website.
Schools are considered eligible to participate in P-EBT if they operate the National School Lunch Program, and have been closed or operating remotely for at least five consecutive days at some point during the 2020-2021 school year.
“What this really does is give more nutrition, more options to many families, most families who already are receiving free or reduced lunch and to 200,000 more kids who otherwise would not,” Pritzker said.
Pam Molitoris, executive director of Central Illinois Foodbank, said at the news conference that there are about 625,000 children in Illinois that are dealing with food insecurity, including nearly 11,000 in Sangamon County.
“We've got parents that do not know how they're going to get to a (food) distribution because they're teaching their kids at home. And so we are just thrilled with the governor, Illinois Department of Human Services, Illinois State Board of Education and our legislators for seeing that this is really an important thing for our community,” she said.
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