U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr
Nearly 600,000 K-12 students in Arizona receive free or reduced-price meals at their schools every day. But when the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the state, those children were in danger of going hungry.
In the days after the closures began, many school districts stepped up to provide to-go meals to their students
. Now, about a month later, the Arizona Department of Economic Security has received authorization from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service to provide what is called "Pandemic School Meal Replacement Benefits."
The program will give households food benefits equal to one free breakfast and one free lunch for each eligible child. The amount of money provided is calculated based on the number of school days for which a child would have received meals at their school. Eligible families will receive $69 for the month of March, $126 in April and $120 in May for each child, according to a press release from the Governor's Office. Families that have been receiving meals from schools during the closure are still eligible for these benefits.
The benefits will first be distributed to eligible families enrolled in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through their existing accounts. DES will work with the Arizona Department of Education to identify other eligible families who are not enrolled in SNAP. Those people will receive Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) debit cards with the balance of their benefits beginning in early May.
For other families whose children participated in the free or reduced-price school lunch program but have not already been enrolled for pandemic benefits, DES is working to create a website for them to submit their information for processing.
“We are working to ensure no Arizona kid goes hungry during the COVID-19 health emergency,” Gov. Doug Ducey said in the press release. “Schools across the state have worked hard to get nutritious meals to kids while schools are closed, and this program will build on those efforts and provide additional relief to families struggling at this time. My thanks to the Department of Economic Security, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service and everyone working to support Arizona’s most vulnerable.”
In addition to the Pandemic School Meal Replacement Benefits, about 200,000 families using SNAP will receive the maximum amount of benefits allotted for their household size during April and May.
Gov. Ducey and DES have submitted requests to the Food Nutrition Service that would allow better access to food assistance resources for families who may face obstacles in light of COVID-19 safety precautions.
The requests include allowing SNAP families to make online purchases for grocery items with authorized retailers; waiving interview requirements when determining eligibility for SNAP, unless more information is needed; temporarily suspending work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents participating in SNAP; extending certification periods by 6 months for recipients due to renew benefits in March, April and May; and allowing for verbal validation in place of a signature on SNAP applications when necessary.