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Delivering Meals to Students During Pandemic Proves Challenging Without Effective Technology

Jul 20, 2020, 13:36 PM by Scott Dunn, Optum Government Solutions
The uncertainty as to whether schools will reopen in the fall and whether there could be a second wave of COVID-19 related closures means states need to pay close attention to how they are going to keep students fed if they have to stay home.

Schools closed, children sent home, uncertainty about when, or if, schools will reopen. Along with all of this uncertainty, children lose another valuable asset of going to school: breakfast and lunches.

A significant number of children receive free or reduced-price school meals and for many, it can be the most nutritious meals (or only meals) they’ll have in a day. When schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of children were impacted by not having their school lunches and breakfasts.

As a result, Congress created the Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT, program in the Families First Corona Virus Response Act. It provides the dollar value children would have received from their free or reduced priced school meals on an EBT card. States have the option to submit a plan to the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide the value of free lunches to students in households who receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) and non-SNAP households for the time schools were closed until the end of the school year. As of this writing, 41 states have been approved to implement P-EBT.

One of the challenges facing states as they stand up this new program is that data contained in school district data systems may not be readily available or usable to determine eligibility for P-EBT. As we have seen with Unemployment Insurance systems throughout the country, legacy systems in state Health and Human Services agencies and school districts may not be equipped to handle the volume of applications or numbers of people eligible for pandemic related assistance programs. It highlights the need to have modern technology systems to handle an unexpected avalanche of applications coming into the system.

Unfortunately, many of the state systems are outdated and inflexible to meet these new challenges with the added complexity that many of the data contained in these systems are not compatible with existing data formats used by state agencies to determine eligibility for SNAP. This has left state agencies having to come up with creative ways to determine eligibility for students to receive P-EBT.

With the uncertainty as to whether schools will reopen in the fall and whether there could be a second wave of COVID-19 related closures, it is instructive to examine what technology related issues should be identified so that no matter if it is COVID-19, some future pandemic, or other natural disaster, these issues can be addressed and plans made to serve people in need in an expeditious manner. Some of the issues that have been mentioned:

A need for data sharing. In order to be able to determine eligibility and provide benefits, agencies have to be able to share data. Privacy and security concerns need to be accounted for, but within appropriate guidelines, data sharing needs to happen to be able to implement the programs.

Data integrity and compatibility. Different naming conventions (Jacqueline Smith vs. Jackie Smith), differing or outdated addresses, etc. are difficulties agencies encounter when trying to conduct data matches to determine if someone is the same individual in two or more different systems. The use of a Master Person Index or Master Data Management components can help address such issues.

Modernized systems that can react quickly to changing circumstances. Again, we’ve heard the stories about Unemployment Insurance systems being so outdated that some state officials were putting out requests for COBOL programmers (which are in short supply) to help change those systems to adopt the new provisions that were passed by Congress. Many legacy systems are hard coded and require time-consuming and costly changes to implement new requirements. The outdated underlying technology of these systems, a lack of interoperability among programmatic systems, and the inability to scale have caused significant delays in benefits to millions of citizens at a time when speed is imperative.

These examples show how the lack of modern technology across many program areas impacted the ability of states to support vulnerable children and families when the support was most needed.

These are just some of the considerations to take into account as we look at the experience of implementing Pandemic EBT. Join the conversation and let us know your experiences.