Broke in Philly

Philly school families get pandemic cash bonus for food, so those who don’t need it plan donation drive

Since the entire city district usually gets free lunch, P-EBT cards go to everyone.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Pennsylvania is distributing more than $300 million in SNAP benefits to families whose children are eligible for free lunch.

Because all Philadelphia public school students receive free lunch at school, all families are eligible to receive an extra $365 or so in pandemic aid — even those that are financially secure.

Almost one third of the money Pennsylvania is distributing via P-EBT cards will go to households who weren’t previously eligible. The emergency distribution is happening so people who’ve been financially impacted by the coronavirus don’t have to fill out paperwork to prove their kids’ need, potentially bogging down the whole system in the process.

The blanket allocation in Philly — all families, regardless of household income — applies because the city qualifies for the community eligibility provision, which provides free meals for the entire district without requiring parents to submit an application. Pennsylvania districts can apply for this designation if more than 40% of students qualify for free meals. More than 1,000 Pennsylvania schools qualify in districts like Reading and Allentown.

It means some families that are financially stable will still receive the extra cash, which is set to be mailed after May 29, according to school district emails.

“It just seemed strange that my family would get this when my family doesn’t need it,” said Jerilyn Dressler, a Fairmount parent whose son attends Bache-Martin Elementary School. “I felt icky that some families are getting it when other families need it more.”

As president of the Friends of Bache-Martin group, Dressler took it up with her school principal and a few other parents.

Turns out, a bunch of parents were thinking the same thing — and wondering how they could use their benefits to help families who needed them more.

Spend the aid, then donate what you saved

About 90% of students in the city qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to School District of Philadelphia spokesperson Monica Lewis. That means at least 1 in 10 families might not actually need the benefits they’re about to receive.

Dressler said she’s among that 10%. She also learned that donating the extra funding isn’t simple.

Turns out, it’s illegal to transfer your P-EBT benefits money to someone else’s card — or to offer your card for someone else to use. You can just let the benefits money sit there, but after six months, it all disappears for good.

Dressler sought guidance from the Coalition Against Hunger, which offered a possible alternative: Spend the aid, then donate what you saved on groceries to a charity or family in need.

So that’s what she’s doing. When Dressler receives her EBT card, she’ll spend it all on food and donate the amount in cash to Philabundance. In collaboration with the Bache-Martin Home & School Association, Dressler’s Friends of Bache-Martin group sent that advice to their nearly 1,000 newsletter subscribers.

Parents who were already enrolled in SNAP benefits have likely already received their $365, a number calculated by multiplying the cost of a $5.70 lunch for each day Philly schools had to close due to the coronavirus. It’ll take a little longer for the people who weren’t previously getting benefits, since the state will have to mail them a brand new access card.

Dressler hasn’t gotten her card in the mail yet. She’s expecting it some time in June.

The Coalition Against Hunger advises families to just hold onto the benefit cards for now, even if they don’t think they’ll need them, since the economy is so uncertain. Just don’t let them sit longer than six months, or they’ll be returned to the government.

If you’re sure you won’t need any grocery assistance in the next six months, official advice from the Philly school district is to do what Dressler is doing, according to spokesperson Lewis: spend the EBT benefits and donate the equivalent cash.

Want some more? Explore other Broke in Philly stories.

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