Utah kids who qualified for free or reduced fee lunches will now get $308 from a federal program

ADDS THAT ITS FIRST DAY OF FREE LUNCHED SINCE SCHOOLS WERE CLOSED - Kitchen assistant Maria Cedillo makes sandwiches for lunch bags at Rockwood Elementry School, as the city public school district holds their first day of providing free meals to students at 42 sites around the district during the coronavirus pandemic, in Oklahoma City Monday, March 24, 2020. Students get free lunches every day when school is in session, this is first day of free meals since schools were closed. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Washington • Families of schoolchildren in Utah who were eligible in March for free or reduced-fee lunches will receive a prepaid debit card or additional food stamp funds of $308 for each kid through a federal program aimed at providing food during the pandemic.

Utah was one of 17 states that didn’t initially join the Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT) because officials said it was too complicated in such a short time to match school district rolls of eligible children with the state-run food stamp program.

But officials say they’re now able to dole out about $50 million in federal funds for kids who would have been provided free or reduced-fee lunches from March 16 through May 29.

The one-time payment of $308 will go to families of each child enrolled in prekindergarten through 12th grade who qualified for free or reduced price school meals as of March 16. It will automatically go to families already on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program but others who are not part of that program will have to apply for the funds.

“As with many states throughout the country, Utah faced initial difficulty in gathering the necessary data to determine eligibility when distributing this program,” said Dale Ownby, director of Utah Workforce Services’ Eligibility Services Division.

“In collaboration with the Utah State Board of Education we have found solutions, and are grateful to receive this approval in order to implement the program for our state.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Utah's application this week.

State officials say the application for those families not already receiving SNAP benefits will be available in late July.

Utah officials had stressed in May that while the state didn't initially join the P-EBT program, no children were going hungry thanks to increased food stamp benefits and the availability of free lunches provided by schools.

The P-EBT program, passed as part of Congress’ effort to address needs during the coronavirus pandemic, had run into difficulties from the onset with only about 15% of eligible students receiving any benefits by May 15, according to a New York Times analysis. At that time, only 12 states had started to send out any money and only two, Michigan and Rhode Island, had finished, the newspaper said.

Utahns Against Hunger, a statewide advocacy group, said it will work with state officials and school districts to implement the new program.

“These benefits will help many Utah families who have faced job loss and may be struggling to afford food for their families,” said Gina Cornia, director of Utahns Against Hunger. “We appreciate the hard work and leadership it has taken to get this program off the ground.”

Chris Peterson, the Democratic nominee running for Utah governor, had organized and delivered a petition with more than 1,600 signatories to state officials urging them to take advantage of the federal program and criticized Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the GOP nominee to take Herbert’s job, for not helping at-risk families during the pandemic.

“I am disappointed that these critical relief funds will be delivered to families months late, when thousands of Utahns are currently out of work and struggling to buy groceries,” Peterson said in a statement. “The governor was ready to leave $50 million in food money on the table because it was too complex. But this reversal was better late than never.”

Peterson added that he believes the Herbert administration didn’t act until there was public pressure to do so.

State House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who had said it was problematic that Utah didn’t initially sign up for the federal program to help needy kids get food, praised the Department of Workforce Services for stepping up now.

“I’m happy to see that DWS has worked through the kinks and we are now accepting federal funds to make it more likely our school kids have their basic nutritional needs met,” King said. “That’s critically important.”