Schools have played a vital role in connecting Hoosier children with access to food and meal services during the pandemic, through local meal services and the records they keep.
Right now, Indiana officials are urging families to make sure their schools have updated address information to facilitate a pandemic-related meals program. The Pandemic EBT program aims to close meal gaps for low-income families by providing food benefits to students who have missed out on school meals because of COVID-19.
The idea is simple: if a student has to stay home for COVID-related reasons, like quarantine or after testing positive, the state uses data collected and kept by the school to mail families a benefit card that covers the cost of missed school meals.
But Adrienne Shields, director of Indiana's Division of Family Resources, said distributing those cards has been more complicated. Some families haven't received their cards or they were sent to the wrong person, because the addresses on file with their child's school aren't correct or complete – especially for those living in mobile homes or hotels.
"If you have a student that lived in a mobile home we may not have received the lot number – we may have received the address for the mobile home park but we never received the lot number," she said. "We may have received the address for the hotel, but we did not receive the room number."
Since May 2020, Shields said the state has issued over $762 million in P-EBT benefits to support more than 752,000 different students across the state.
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Shields said another distribution is likely coming in early December, and the state has started using specialized software to help confirm the addresses provided by schools before mailing out the P-EBT cards.
Shields said families with questions about P-EBT or other benefits can call 211 for assistance, which is managed by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, or visit the state's benefits portal.
Schools have also served roughly 15 million meals to Hoosier children in need during the pandemic even as they grapple with supply chain issues and staff shortages, according to a national nonprofit's state affiliate, No Kid Hungry Indiana.
Tarrah Westercamp is the school program manager for No Kid Hungry Indiana. She said roughly $1.1 million sent to schools by the nonprofit has translated to new and expanded meal services during COVID-19.
For example, the School City of Hammond deployed a food truck with a custom Google Map tool for families to use in any language.
"And it provided them the sites and the meal hours, like service hours, that their families could come and pick up free meals," Westercamp said.
Other schools across the state have created or expanded weekend meal programs for students in need, summer and mobile meal services, and holiday meal events for community members.
Westercamp said the number of children facing hunger in Indiana has increased by about 20,000 during the pandemic. She said people can help connect families with food services by sharing information about resources available in their community or donating to organizations like No Kid Hungry.