HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has gotten permission from the federal government to provide a one-time $370.50 payment to parents of each child who receives free or reduced school lunch to cover the cost feeding kids while schools are closed.

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer payments will go to families of 958,000 school-aged children and is intended to offset the costs of feeding the children meals they would have gotten at school from the time schools closed in mid-March to the end of the school year, said Lisa Watson, deputy secretary for the Office of Income Maintenance within the Department of Human Services.

Watson said the state received approval for the program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday.

The state approval was first reported by CNHI Thursday morning.

“Schools may be closed for the rest of the school year because of COVID-19, but students still need to eat breakfast and lunch. The Wolf administration is committed to doing everything in its power to make sure that families have the resources they need during this public health crisis, and I am very grateful that the USDA will allow us to offer this support to families” said Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller in a statement released just before noon on Thursday. “Going without essential needs like food to get by now can jeopardize children’s health and development in both the short and long-term, and P-EBT will help families make up for the loss of in-school meals and avoid these potential long-term outcomes.”

The funding comes through a new program authorized by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in March.

The payments will be added to the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards used to distribute Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments. Families who don’t already have any EBT card will receive one for the school-lunch benefit payment, Watson said.

Pennsylvania is the 20th state to get permission to offer this type of payment, according to the USDA. The same program was approved for New York on Thursday, as well, according to the USDA. Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia were among the 19 other states previously approved to offer the benefit.

The USDA estimated that 54 percent of Pennsylvania school students will be covered by the benefit.

A family’s benefit will be determined based off the federal reimbursement rate for the daily rate of free school breakfasts and lunches, or approximately $5.70 per child.

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program is a joint effort between the Department of Human Services and the Department of Education.

“As families adapt to the commonwealth’s school closures and students adjust to learning at home, parents and guardians shouldn’t have to be concerned about accessing nutritious meals for their children,” Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera said.

Parents will not need to apply for the benefit, Watson said. The first payments are expected to go out in about 15 business days.

If a family’s economic situation has changed since school closures began, they can still apply for the National School Lunch Program and, if determined eligible, receive P-EBT benefits. Families can apply online at www.compass.state.pa.us.

Anti-hunger advocates had been hoping the state would roll out this type of program, said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, based in Pittsburgh.

While some school districts have been distributing meals to help feed students when the school cafeterias aren’t available, most families can’t regularly access those food distributions, he said.

When schools have offered meals, the service “reaches a fraction of those who were getting breakfast and lunch at school every day,” Regal said.

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