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Families of kids continuing to learn remotely are cut off from P-EBT food program

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When this school year began, most families sent their children back into classrooms, but not all. Because of lingering COVID concerns, some parents and caregivers enrolled their kids in state- or district-run virtual academies. For some low-income families, that decision has come with a consequence they weren't expecting. They're now being cut off from a federal program run by the USDA that helped put food on the table. NPR's Cory Turner explains.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: That program, called Pandemic EBT, has a terrible name. But to the families it's helped...

JOEL BARRON: It was a godsend.

TURNER: Joel Barron is raising two kids on her own, ages 10 and 12, in Minnetonka, Minn. And she says when her kids were home last year, learning remotely, Pandemic EBT was crucial.

BARRON: It provided us the stability of actually being able to feed my kids throughout the whole month.

TURNER: The program began when most schools went virtual in 2020, and Congress and the USDA had a problem - how to reach the millions of kids who depend on free or low-cost meals at school. Their solution - Pandemic EBT, which put the value of those missed meals onto a debit card. Families could then use that card to buy groceries themselves. Barron says it was great until the beginning of this school year, when she decided in spite of her district's safety efforts...

BARRON: It did not make me feel safe enough to allow my child to go back to school because they were not able to get vaccinated.

TURNER: Barron's daughter also struggles with asthma, so Barron enrolled her kids in their district's virtual academy. But she didn't know that these all-day virtual schools don't qualify for Pandemic EBT. The USDA tells NPR Pandemic EBT was meant to help families whose kids missed school meals because of COVID. But many of these virtual academies have never provided meals. Anti-hunger advocates say these kids are missing meals because if it weren't for COVID, they'd be back in brick-and-mortar schools.

RACHEL COOPER: This isn't a choice that they're going to virtual academies. They're doing it because they fear for their safety.

TURNER: Rachel Cooper with the nonprofit think tank Every Texan says USDA's position is forcing parents and caregivers to choose between that sense of safety and making sure their kids can eat.

COOPER: Now the most vulnerable kids living in the most vulnerable homes are having to make those decisions, and they're falling into this legal gray zone.

TURNER: Several anti-hunger advocates say USDA is not ill-intentioned here. It's just applying old rules to constantly changing problems.

LISA DAVIS: There's no playbook.

TURNER: Lisa Davis is senior VP of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign.

DAVIS: And people are trying to figure out what different things mean as they go along, and sometimes they're making the wrong call. And I think this is an example of the wrong call.

TURNER: Joel Barron worries policymakers don't know what families like hers are now going through.

BARRON: I guess, people who are wealthy and well-off do not understand the look in your child's eyes when they do not have anything to eat.

TURNER: When asked if her kids would be learning remotely without the pandemic, Barron was quick to answer - of course not. School was a joy for them. Cory Turner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELBM'S "FUNICULAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.