Families with children who receive free or reduced-price lunches at a school that participates in the National School Lunch Program — which more than 1,800 of Colorado’s 1,914 schools do — can apply for up to $279 per child to offset the breakfasts and lunches they missed when campuses closed due to COVID-19.
The program ends in September, though, and it’s not clear if Congress and the president will agree to extend it for kids whose schools continue to operate remotely in the fall.
If a family already is enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP or food stamps, they should have automatically received the payment, said Karla Maraccini, division director of food and energy assistance at the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Those who didn’t get the full payment because of a data glitch will need to apply, as will families that don’t receive SNAP. If a family earned too much to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in March, but lost income in April or May, they can apply for a partial payment, she said.
The Department of Human Services estimated about 390,000 kids in Colorado might be eligible, but the funds aren’t limited to that many if it turns out that more qualify, Maraccini said. Families have applied for payments for about 136,000 kids as of Aug. 13, she said.
Hunger Free Colorado and other partners are helping families that don’t have internet access to apply over the phone, Maraccini said. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires states to distribute all the money by the end of September, so families should apply by Sept. 23 to ensure there’s enough time for processing, she said.
“In terms of a means-tested program, it is not complicated” to apply, she said.
Congressional Democrats’ version of a coronavirus assistance package would extend the payments, but the odds of that bill passing appear slim. Republicans and Democrats in Congress disagree on several issues, and President Donald Trump has shown less interest in passing a comprehensive package since he issued an executive order adding $300 to normal unemployment benefits.
Schools will still receive federal funds for meals, as usual, and some already are setting up sites where kids can pick up grab-and-go lunches this fall. In Denver Public Schools, dozens of sites will begin offering grab-and-go lunches on weekdays starting Monday, with the option to take a breakfast meal for the next day. Meals will also be delivered directly to some apartment complexes and other community locations.
The extra food assistance is separate from the funds paid out to schools for meals, so parents can qualify even if their kids received grab-and-go meals from their schools this spring, Maraccini said. Families also can apply regardless of immigration status.
The $279 payment was calculated based on the cost of school-based breakfasts and lunches for the number of days schools were closed this spring, said Paola Babb, community engagement and child nutrition manager at Hunger Free Colorado.
The advantage of a program like this is that parents can choose freely, Babb said, rather than having to hope that food pantries are giving out something their children will eat and aren’t allergic to.
“They have their autonomy, and they can purchase the foods they need and want,” she said.
Maraccini said she hopes the one-time benefit will encourage more families to find out if they qualify for SNAP.
“We really want families who are eligible to enroll,” she said.