The program, Pandemic-EBT, aims to compensate for the declining reach of school meals by placing their value on electronic cards that families can use in grocery stores. But collecting lunch lists from thousands of school districts, transferring them to often-outdated state computers and issuing specialized cards has proved much harder than envisioned, leaving millions of needy families waiting to buy food. Congress approved the effort in mid-March as part of the Families First act, its first major coronavirus relief package. By May 15, only about 15 percent of eligible children had received benefits, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Just 12 states had started sending money, and Michigan and Rhode Island alone had finished. The pace is accelerating, with millions of families expected to receive payments in the coming weeks. But 16 states still lack federal approval to begin the payments and Utah declined to participate, saying it did not have the administrative capacity to distribute the money. Many Southern states with high rates of child hunger have gotten a slow start. As of May 15, states had issued payments for about 4. So vital are school meals in some places, states are issuing replacement benefits in waves to keep grocers from being overwhelmed. The lag between congressional action and families buying food is, in many places, less a story of bureaucratic indifference than a testament to the convoluted nature of the American safety net. Many officials have worked overtime to start the program amid competing crises. Yet even in delivering a benefit as simple as a school meal, federal, state and local governments can all add delays, as can the private companies that print the cards, which can only buy food. Aid in the United States generally follows a patchwork logic, but the arbitrary nature of the moment is especially pronounced: Families with three children in Jacksonville, N. One corner of red-state America Fredonia, Ariz. Many anti-hunger experts still think the program will make a big difference, and advocates generally have been reluctant to fault the states. More than half of schoolchildren qualify for subsidized meals — 78 percent in Louisiana and 85 percent in West Virginia. After classrooms closed in mid-March, most schools continued to serve meals in grab-and-go lines or along bus routes, even as cooks and drivers fell ill. But despite tenacious efforts, the meals have reached a small share of those who previously got them. National data is lacking, but weekly surveys of low-income families in Philadelphia by Elizabeth Ananat of Barnard College and Anna Gassman-Pines of Duke University found the share ranged from 11 percent to 36 percent. All signs show child hunger is soaring. In a survey of mothers with young children by the Brookings Institution, nearly a fifth said their children were not getting enough to eat — a rate three times higher than the worst of the Great Recession. With big increases in other federal relief gradually reaching families, the problem could ease. But child hunger usually grows during the summer when school kitchens close, and teenagers now have less ability to supplement family budgets with summer jobs. Food prices in April rose at the fastest pace in 46 years. In creating Pandemic-EBT for Electronic Benefit Transfer , Congress bet that plastic cards could reach more people than school meals and offer greater choice. The federal government pays the benefits, and states pay half the administrative costs. Michigan set the pace, making its first payments on April 17, about four weeks after Congress passed the law. It has reached nearly a million children, while some states are still debating whether to proceed. But Florida, Georgia and Mississippi have still not received federal permission to begin, and South Carolina has yet to apply. Two Southern states moved swiftly: Alabama and North Carolina third to get a federal green light. Blue states have generally moved fastest. Two-thirds of states that sent money by May 15 have Democratic governors.

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