Last month Oregon started distributing three monthly payments of up to $408 per child to families. That money is to make up for the free or reduced-cost meals that were lost during the last pandemic year. Dan Haun, Director of Self-Sufficiency Programs at the Oregon Department of Human Services, explains how those benefits work. And Matt Newell-Ching, Public Policy Manager at the Oregon Food Bank, explains how the payments fit into the broader picture of food insecurity in Oregon.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A few weeks ago, the state of Oregon sent out the first of three monthly payments to many families in the state. In total, eligible recipients could get more than $1000 per child. The money is intended to make up for the free or reduced-cost meals that were not given out during the last school year. For more on these benefits and the broader picture of food insecurity or hunger in Oregon, I’m joined by Dan Haun, the Director of Self-Sufficiency Programs at the Oregon Department of Human Services, and Matt Newell-Ching, the Public Policy Manager for the Oregon Food Bank. Welcome to you both.
Matt Newell-Ching: Thanks for having us on Dave.
Dan Haun: Yeah, thanks Dave.
Miller: Dan Haun, first, can you explain with more detail the idea behind these Pandemic EBT benefits?
Haun: Absolutely. The Pandemic EBT benefits are benefits that come from the federal government. During this last school year, obviously, with kids not going to school or not being in school as much as they normally would during a school year, families often had to take on more of the financial burden of feeding children during the day. A lot of families benefit from and use the free and reduced meal programs that happened at the schools during the school day. Since kids weren’t there, the cost of providing those meals to their families went up for parents. This was recognition that -- even though food was available in a lot of school districts, through sack lunch programs or cold lunch programs, where people could go pick up meals -- this is recognition from the federal government that that didn’t begin to cover the increased cost of not having those programs available to them.
Miller: As you mentioned, some schools did provide meals for kids even though there were no in-person classes. Sometimes I think it was delivered. Sometimes it was a pickup. Will families in those schools still be able to get this new support?
Haun: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the great things about this program. Even though those meals were available, this program doesn’t really look at that at all. It only looks at the fact that kids were not in school and they didn’t have access to the hot meal lunches. So, whether those meals were available or not, does not have an impact on the benefit amount.
Miller: The first money that was sent out -- or the first money that was on the debit cards before they can be refilled in two subsequent months -- was meant to replace meals that were not given out back in October of 2020. What’s the idea of sending money 10 months after the fact?
Haun: Yeah Dave that wasn’t, I don’t think, the original intent of the program. This is actually the third time we’ve run this program. The federal government allowed us to run this program back in the spring. At the beginning of COVID, March April May June, we were able to get benefits out to folks then. And then they renewed the program for August and September this year. And then there was a delay in the government approving these additional benefits. So these additional benefits, while originally came out in 2020 through the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, the federal government didn’t put rules in place until 2021 that we could actually benefit from. This third time we’re running the program, going back to October, we’re looking at a different population of folks. So we actually had to redesign the entire program, add more students and look at data differently. It literally took us until July to make the changes to our computer systems to partner with the Department of Education, get the data we needed to run this. We still feel like it’s a really important program. And even with this delay, families deserve the money they were eligible for and deserve the opportunity to supplement their food benefits.
Miller: Dan Haun, I want to hear more about how this is working and the infrastructure behind it. But as I mentioned, Matt Newell-Ching is with us as well. Public Policy Manager at the Oregon Food Bank. How big an increase in food insecurity or hunger have you seen in Oregon over the last year and a half?
Newell-Ching: It’s been a really hard year and a half for communities. So, just a level set, prior to the pandemic one in eleven Oregonians struggled to afford food. So that’s about 9%. And in 2020 ranges are a little bit varied, but Oregon State University estimated that nearly one in four Oregonians struggled to afford food. Which is just a dramatic increase. It’s worth saying that we also know that both the public health and the economic impacts of the pandemic have widened inequities that existed prior to the pandemic. And that’s particularly true for Oregonians who are BIPOC. Those same trends are true nationally as well.
Miller: So that’s the surge in need that you’ve seen and that there are numbers for. But we’ve also seen an unprecedented amount of direct government aid that included beefed up unemployment insurance and also three different sets of stimulus checks or, in some cases, just direct deposits to people’s bank accounts. What difference do you think that unprecedented level of largely federal support made for Oregon families?
Newell-Ching: This support has been absolutely critical for families and our communities. You mentioned unemployment and when you asked Dan about the delay in Pandemic EBT, I think it was also true that in early  in spring you had a lot of folks who lost their jobs and, for many Oregonians, it took a long time for folks to access those benefits. I do think once those people were able to access unemployment, and for many Oregonians, they saw an increase in the amount of benefits they received through SNAP. I think what this teaches us is that we are so much better off when we err on the side of making sure that we support people in our communities. We have this unprecedented pandemic. And it’s critical, we are so much better off when we stand together with one another and not just have this sort of, you’re all on your own type of approach.
Miller: What are you thinking going forward? I mean, what do you see as the lessons in terms of this kind of aid or support as we enter -- if we enter -- nonemergency times?
Newell-Ching: There are so many lessons that we learned. Since we’re talking about Pandemic EBT, I think we all would love to see, when schools do close, for parents and families to be able to have access to meal replacement benefits as quickly as possible. One of the issues that we’re advocating for at the congressional level.. There’s a bill in front of Congress called the Stop Child Hunger Act; we’re hoping that that is going to be a part of the budget reconciliation process that’s going forward right now. But what that would do is, that bill would ensure that families receive meal replacement benefit money for school meals in the summertime, but also in other times when schools are closed. So think about Spring Break, think about Winter Break. We’re in a pandemic right now so we’re thinking about that. But if there’s a closure due to wildfires or an ice storm or an earthquake or a pandemic, then those benefits can be turned on more quickly. And I think one of the lessons here -- and Dan, feel free to chime in as well -- is that what we want to make sure is that these systems are in place in Oregon and in other states. So that school districts are working with the Department of Human Services, are working with the Department of Education, to all work together to make sure that this data is in place. So we don’t have these nine month gaps. And I’ll just give credit to Dan and your team for doing an amazing job of taking the tools you had and making sure that we got benefits out. I think it’s on Congress to make sure that our states have the tools to do better in the future, so that’s what we’re advocating for.
Miller: So Dan Haun, let me follow up with this because, in a sense, there are at least two different important pieces here. One is having money available to spend and having some set of eligibility requirements to figure out who can get that money. But the other is a more tactical one or logistical issue of how do you actually figure out who these people are and how they can access money and where they are. It seems like both of those have been issues. But the second one, the logistical one, may have been the more challenging piece. Why is that such a challenge?
Haun: Yeah Dave, thanks. It was a big challenge during Pandemic EBT because we, at the Department of Human Services, we don’t do the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Eligibility for that is determined locally at the local school district. So, as we try to find these kids and these families who are eligible for this, it took a lot of data from those individual school districts in partnership with the Oregon Department of Education to get that information together. And then for us at the Oregon Department of Human Services to take that information, find those families, figure out if they were already receiving benefits.. Because, if they were already receiving benefits, we were able to supplement their current EBT card to get benefits there. And for those who were not, to figure out how to get them an EBT card and explain to them why they were getting the benefits and be able to load those things. Some of those logistics were just incredibly difficult to do. Also, in February, we launched an entirely new eligibility system for the state of Oregon and we were able to put a lot of our benefits in the same eligibility system for ease of use for Oregonians. But the timing of that just wasn’t great for launching a brand new EBT program. To Matt’s point, I think the more we can do to have these things built in place and ready to go, the easier and smoother it’ll be for any Oregonian.
Miller: I’ve read that there was actually some concern that some people would get this envelope from someplace in South Dakota -- the processor or creator of these, what are effectively debit cards -- that this was a fear [that some people] wouldn’t realize there was actually a debit card with money they could spend on food in their hands. They would think it was junk mail and they would throw it away. How much has that happened?
Haun: That’s gonna be a tough one for us to measure, Dave. Because we don’t have the ability to know who’s using their cards and who’s not at the moment. We may get families who choose to wait to use the card. The benefits on these cards will be put on over three months, but they’re able to be used for the next 12 months. Some families may be in a good spot right now and decide they don’t want to spend the benefit and want to wait and spend it later. They’ll be able to do that. So at this point we’re not sure. We have had some phone calls on our hotline where some families have realized that they did that and we’re able to get them a new card.
Miller: Matt Newell-Ching, I don’t think anybody would argue that, effectively, a debit card that arrives in the mail for $300 you can spend on food over the course of a couple of months, that that’s a solution to hunger. That’s a band aid. We only have two minutes left, but what are some of the ideas that you point to that are actually more like solutions?
Newell-Ching: I’m so glad you raised that, Dave, because I think you’re right. It’s an all of the above solution. When we talk to people who come through the doors of our agencies about what keeps them [up] at night and what are the problems that are facing households; it’s the cost of rent, it’s housing, it’s health care, it’s child care. As we are hopefully getting closer to getting back to work, we know that child care is the work that makes all other work possible. So it’s critical that we have that infrastructure in place and we are hopeful and are encouraging Congress to take bold action to address some of these significant problems. Just one more thing that I might add is that so many of these benefits exclude members of our communities who are Oregonians who are immigrants. And if there’s anything this pandemic has taught us is that immigrants are essential to our communities. And it’s time that we reform our public assistance programs to reflect that, to make sure that everyone is included in these recovery efforts.
Miller: Matt Newell-Ching and Dan Haun, thanks very much for joining us today.
Haun: Thanks Dave.
Newell-Ching: Thanks Dave.
Miller: Matt Newell-Ching is the Public Policy Manager for the Oregon Food bank. Dan Haun is the Director of Self-Sufficiency Programs at Oregon’s Department of Human Services.
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