In a move that apparently surprised many people who received them, the state has begun mailing thousands of Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to households where school children reside, according to state officials.

More than $166 million of the food assistance will be distributed in Maine. School officials in some districts say they were not informed that the assistance was coming, and that they’ve received queries from many people who didn’t expect to receive the benefit.

The federal P-EBT benefit provides additional nutrition support for families of infants, and for children eligible for free or reduced school lunches but who lacked access to school-based food programs because they were learning remotely or absent because they contracted COVID-19, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The benefit was also distributed to most Maine students, regardless of financial need, who were enrolled in school as of June 2023.

DHHS said in a blog on Sept. 12 that it distributed P-EBT cards to the families of more than 150,000 Maine school children, with benefits per child ranging from $40 to $120, depending on whether the child’s school was partially or fully remote.

Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the DHHS, said in an email Monday that this is the final round of federally funded benefits through the P-EBT program.

Farwell said students at schools in Maine are eligible for P-EBT benefits regardless of their financial circumstances. Families that choose not to use the card can discard it and the unused benefits will be returned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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The federal program, which is administered by states, began in May 2020 as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 and ended when the federal public health emergency was halted in May 2023.

Some school districts were surprised to learn they were eligible for the benefit. The return address on the mailing was a post office box in Austin, Texas, and the letter says students may use the cards at SNAP-authorized retailers nationwide. Farwell did not respond to a question about why the cards were mailed from Texas.

Jeff Porter, superintendent in MSAD 51 which includes the towns of Cumberland and North Yarmouth, sent a notice to MSAD 51 families Monday after several families reported receiving the cards over the weekend.

“We were not given prior notice that these cards were being distributed. After contacting the Maine Department of Education’s Child Nutrition Office, we have been told that all Maine students are receiving these benefits as part of the state’s transition to free breakfasts and lunches for all Maine children, regardless of income eligibility,” Porter wrote in the notice. “If your students was enrolled in MSAD 51 last year year, you likely received or will receive a P-EBT card in the mail.”

Porter said the cards can be used for food in any store that accepts SNAP. Porter said he is unable to provide families with information about the stores where the cards can be used, the amount of benefits available and when the cards will be issued.

Note: This story was updated Tuesday Oct. 3 to remove incorrect information about applications for the P-EBT program. The state is no longer accepting applications, according to DHHS,

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