Betsy Mayo was perplexed by a letter she got in the mail on Saturday – a nearly blank envelope addressed to her 11-year-old daughter.

“Inside was an EBT card with a design on it that looked like a fourth-grader made the card,” Mayo said Tuesday. “All I could think of is that this was a scam.”

The card was legitimate, one of about 150,000 EBT cards distributed to households with schoolchildren across the state in the last week. The cards were distributed by the Mills administration using $166 million in federal pandemic relief funds.

The cards can be used to buy groceries at any place that accepts food stamps. They are pre-loaded with between $40 and $120 per student and are being distributed to households regardless of income.

But Mayo said none of that was apparent from the letter that arrived at her Gray home Saturday. She called the number on the letter and was still confused. When she called Gray-New Gloucester schools on Monday, they didn’t know about the cards either, and said they were getting inundated with calls about them. Officials in other school districts also said they weren’t given advance warning that the cards were being mailed and had difficulty answering questions.

Mayo said her family doesn’t qualify for food stamps – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – and she was worried it would be considered fraud if they used the money.


She eventually figured out that it wasn’t a scam, and how to use the cards, but says it shouldn’t have been so difficult.

“It would have been really great if the state or the schools had sent us some sort of information telling us to expect this,” Mayo said. “My brother threw it out thinking it was junk mail. People were calling me asking if I got one and what was it. I thought ‘What in the world is happening?’ ”

Press Herald illustration

It was the federal government that decided to distribute remaining pandemic relief money in the form of the EBT cards to families who receive free school lunches. The funding is based on school meals that weren’t provided because of disruptions during the pandemic.

When Maine became one of the first states to make school lunches free for students regardless of income – as permitted under the Biden administration’s U.S. Department of Agriculture – it meant the pandemic relief money targeted to address child hunger would be sent to everyone who qualified for the free lunches, state officials said.

“The USDA determined the eligibility guidelines for the P-EBT program, directing states that all students attending schools (in the program) are eligible to receive benefits. Schools determine whether to participate,” said Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “Most Maine schools have opted to do so to facilitate universal school meals, which schools must provide as a result of the law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. (Janet) Mills in 2021.”

“Families that received cards are encouraged to use these federally funded benefits to provide additional nutritious foods for their households,” Farwell said. “Families who do not wish to use the cards can discard them. Unused benefits will be returned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in nine months.”


The money can’t be used to purchase food for anyone outside of the household receiving the money, Farwell said.


Mayo said she’s not returning the $120 her family received, but she believes that the money could have been used in a better way. Their family is upper middle class, and not in danger of missing meals, she said.

“They could have done it a lot better,” Mayo said. “It could have gone to someone else that needed it more than me.”

Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner, said the debit card confusion resulted from the “sloppy rollout of a poorly designed plan.”

“My constituents’ taxes should not be funding extra benefits for rich families in southern Maine,” Morris said.


Jacob Posik, legislative affairs director for the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, said the program is the “epitome of government waste.”

“It has really lax criteria, and it’s not targeted to the people who need it,” Posik said. “This is a lot like a lot of the pandemic programs that gave money to everybody and anybody with a pulse.”

But James Myall, a policy analyst for the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, said while it’s true that in some cases people are getting the money who don’t need it, “there is an advantage to simplicity” in distributing the money widely. And he said it’s going to many families that can use some help in buying groceries.

“There’s a lot of good being done with this money,” Myall said.

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