Child Nutrition Assistant Denise Ballentine passes out lunches to pre-K students at Blue Ridge School in Cashiers. The Jackson County school is one of the few in the state with a public pre-K program. Since the school also qualifies for a blanket free-lunch program for all attendees, pre-K students benefit from the same free lunch as the rest of the children. Nick Haseloff / Carolina Public Press

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More than 800,000 children across North Carolina who have lost access to free or reduced-price school meals due to COVID-19 will be eligible for food benefits through the state’s participation in the federal Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT, program, Gov. Roy Cooper announced this week.

Created under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the program will provide some $2 million in funding to North Carolina children.

“So many families are in need, especially with so many out of work right now,” Cooper said in a statement. “This approval helps people get assistance faster to feed their families.”

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

North Carolina was among the nation’s first four states — along with Massachusetts, Michigan and Rhode Island — approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to receive the federal funding. To qualify, a state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and child nutrition agencies were required to submit a joint proposal to the USDA outlining a plan for executing the new program, which included a plan for how the state would provide the P-EBT benefits to eligible families who already participate in SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps, and to qualifying families who do not participate in SNAP.

The state departments of Health and Human Services and Public Instruction collaborated on the plan and are working with county social services departments that administer the USDA’s Food Nutrition Service to implement it.

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“As our schools closed, many families across the state worried about where their next meals would come from — and we knew we had to take action,” said N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen in a press statement.

Card instead of lunch: How it works, who’s eligible

The program provides financial assistance on an Electronic Benefits Transfer card to families whose children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch at school.

The card can be used to purchase food at EBT-authorized retailers and most major grocery stores. Qualifying families will receive $250 total per child in two installments, starting in the next two to three weeks.

Should North Carolina schools be closed past May 15, there is a possibility that additional funding will be made available.

Amid the confusing mass of applications that people across the state are filling out for everything from small-business loans and paycheck protection to unemployment, this food assistance program is not something families need to apply for, officials said. Those who qualify will automatically receive the benefit.

So who does qualify? Currently, those who are already receiving Food and Nutrition Services are eligible. Those families will receive the additional benefit on their current EBT cards. Also eligible are those families whose children are already receiving free and reduced-price lunches at school.

Those families will receive an EBT card in the mail in the next few weeks, as well as a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services explaining how to activate and use the card.

Can you become eligible?

Increasing numbers of people who need food assistance could qualify for it given the current economic squeeze.

According to DHHS spokesperson Kelly Connor, those hoping to receive the P-EBT program benefit can apply for the SNAP program through their county social services departments. If they qualify, then they will become eligible to receive the benefit.

To learn more and determine whether you might qualify, visit the DHHS food stamps webpage.

Students who can qualify for the National School Lunch Program can also become eligible for the P-EBT assistance. Current eligibility guidelines can be found through the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

To apply, contact your county’s school nutrition services.

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Melissa Reardon

Melissa Reardon is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Buncombe County. Email info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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