A new federal program to help feed youngsters will provide $382 per child to about 26,000 Maine families.

“This will be huge for them,” said Amy Regan Gallant, vice president of advocacy for the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn.

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, created as part of a coronavirus relief package approved by Congress, is designed to offer food to families who are losing access to free or reduced-price school meals as a result of school closures.

Gallant said it pays families $5.70 per day for each eligible child since the time schools closed in mid-March, a total the state set at 67 days.

It amounts to $17 million worth of assistance to families with children who earn up to 175% of the federal poverty line, which means a family of four could earn nearly $46,000 annually and remain eligible.

“I’m grateful for this move, which is another critical component of our plan to keep Maine’s children healthy,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in a prepared statement. “For many Maine students, school meals are the only source of food they can rely on.”

Gallant said the state will add the extra cash onto the EBT cards possessed by families that receive SNAP benefits. It is not clear if it will come all at once or in installments, she said.

Families that earn up to 138% of the poverty line are eligible for SNAP benefits. But they can get free or reduced-price lunches from schools if they earn less than 175% of the poverty line.

What that means, Gallant said, is that there are 2,221 households in Maine that qualify for the new food aid but who won’t have a SNAP card the state can use to add the money.

She said it is not clear yet whether they’ll be sent a card in the mail along with instructions or if some other process will be required.

During this school year, federal records show, at least 80,000 Maine children are eligible for the program, 44% of all of the students in participating schools.

Gallant said the cash will help struggling families to buy food and will bolster the bottom line of supermarkets that sell it.

She said SNAP cards are “a great way to boost local revenue” because the money people get for food is spent at local retailers.

Gallant said there is still a question about whether the program will be extended into the summer. Given the economic conditions, she said, it should be.

The new program is “a really good step” but more is needed.

Maine and Vermont were among the four states added to the program this week. There are 20 states that have met its requirements so far, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

To participate in the program, states had to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for providing benefits to SNAP and non-SNAP households with children who lost access to the school food programs because of COVID-19-related closures.

It is one of many program changes undertaken by the federal government to try to increase access to food for children, including rule changes that made it possible for school districts to distribute meals to children who can no longer go to their classrooms.

“When the coronavirus first caused school closures across the United States, it raised the issue of how children would receive the meals they normally got in school, especially as the pandemic caused economic uncertainty for many families,” Pingree said.

She said she is proud that many Maine schools “have stepped up to provide off-site meal services for many of our students, and the federal approval of Maine’s P-EBT plan means that even more students in need can be served directly.”

Gallant said that accepting the meals many districts are handing out to families daily will not have an impact on receiving the extra cash.


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