The family of every Chicago Public Schools student, regardless of income or citizenship status, is set to receive more than $450 in the mail this month — plus hundreds more next month — to support food expenses.
The benefits, which can be twice that amount or more for families with two or more kids in school, are funded through a federal pandemic relief program. In total, one million students throughout the state will qualify for similar benefits.
The program — Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, an offshoot of the EBT system — is intended to help students who usually receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch but who haven’t had access to in-school meals during the pandemic. Since CPS participates in a federal program that provides free lunch for all students in the district, every CPS student is eligible and will automatically receive the benefits in the mail.
P-EBT is specifically meant to replace the loss of in-school meals, so the fact that CPS and other districts have distributed meals to go at hundreds of schools during the pandemic has no impact on any district’s eligibility.
The first funds will be distributed in the first half of March with $6.82 loaded onto the cards for each school day through December that students were in remote learning — adding up to a little over $450 for CPS students. Another set of cards will be mailed in April with benefits for January through March, and families will receive a monthly benefit starting in May for the rest of the school year.
Students who return to part-time in-person learning will only receive the benefits for the days they’re learning remotely because they’ll have access to in-school meals the other days.
“Research shows that children who are hungry are not able to focus and learn,” State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said in a statement. “Schools have served more than 113 million meals to students since the pandemic began, and the P-EBT builds on this care and commitment to ensure all Illinois children have their nutritional needs met.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the state is moving “another step closer to ending hunger for all of Illinois” with this program.
The cards will look like debit cards and can be used at any grocery store that accepts EBT. Illinois officials asked families to be on the lookout for the cards in the mail, urging diligence so the benefits aren’t thrown away and because they must be spent in a year’s time. Parents should immediately update their address with their school if they’ve recently moved.
Families will receive the cards regardless of their immigration status — P-EBT won’t count as a public charge, officials said. And those who receive SNAP benefits will get a separate card instead of having the funds loaded onto their existing EBT card.
Illinois is one of 20 states that submitted plans for P-EBT that were approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is overseeing the program. Illinois’ plan is valued at up to $110 million per month.
Every CPS student was eligible for similar funds last spring, but families who weren’t enrolled in SNAP benefits had to fill out an application to get a card — meaning potentially thousands missed out if they didn’t know about the program. This year, the money is automatically being mailed to all 355,000 students, about 76% of whom are classified as “economically disadvantaged,” CPS data shows. Families with more than one child will get a card for each student.