SOUTH MILWAUKEE — With so many kids learning at home during COVID-19, thousands who qualified for free and reduced meals at school never got them. Instead, their families fed them and in some cases, grocery bills got bigger.
"I have a 13-year-old boy and a growing fourth-grader and they eat me out of house and home on a daily basis," said mom Cheyenne of South Milwaukee.
A federal program called Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program or P-EBT is giving families food assistance to buy groceries. The food benefits were designed to help families with students learning at home during the pandemic.
Cheyenne contacted our Call 4 Action office after she learned her family wasn't eligible for the program, even though she says the program was created to assist families like hers.
On the Wisconsin Department of Health Services' website it reads:
"Across Wisconsin, children who normally get free or reduced-price meals at their schools have been learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. To help families in feeding those children, the federal government created the P-EBT program that provides benefits for people to buy food if their children are not getting free or reduced-price meals."
"They qualify for the free and reduced lunch program and always have," Cheyenne said.
She told TMJ4 News she makes just over the income limit to qualify for Foodshare, but getting help in feeding her children pre-pandemic has helped her family financially.
The mother of two says her children have been learning online for well over a year.
But here's the catch: Cheyenne enrolled her kids in WIVA (Wisconsin Virtual Academy), instead of doing virtual learning with her kids' South Milwaukee school.
WIVA doesn't take part in the National School Lunch Program, which is needed to qualify for P-EBT.
"So, I want to know why they wouldn't allow that caveat," Cheyenne said.
"I chose to go through the WIVA K-12 online public school option this year because I just wasn't certain about the [school] district's ability to really have a concrete format and I didn't want my kids to lose out on any more real learning time," Cheyenne said.
A DHS spokesperson provided the below statement to TMJ4 News.
"Due to privacy concerns, I can't talk about specific cases. However, I can tell you DHS recognizes and empathizes with the difficult educational choices parents had to make in this unprecedented year regarding educational choices for their children. The P-EBT Program, which is designed and funded under the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (USDA FNS), has clearly defined rules that govern the circumstances under which states are able to provide benefits. One of those rules is that for a child to receive benefits, they must have been enrolled in a school that participates in the National School Lunch Program during each of the months that benefits are provided. I do want to make sure you and your viewers are aware of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which ensures food pantries are stocked. A call to 211 will help you find the food pantry nearest you."
TMJ4 News has followed up with questions to DHS including how much of the P-EBT funding is still available and how many families like Cheyenne's have learned they don't qualify. We are waiting for those responses.
"I just hope they take that into consideration," said Cheyenne. "I feel like that's DHS's responsibility to find out you know, at least who are these families and do they need support as well?"