Five Ways to Help Ensure Pandemic-EBT Reaches Immigrant Families

By Madison Allen

When it became clear that schools across the country would be closing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Congress created a new program – Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) – to help families put food on the table for students who were receiving free or reduced price meals at school. P-EBT benefits are loaded onto a card that recipients can use to purchase food at grocery stores, farmers markets, bodegas, and other authorized retailers. For many immigrant families who’ve been excluded from unemployment assistance and stimulus checks, P-EBT may be the only new resource available to help them weather this challenging time. To ensure successful outcomes, though, states must intentionally target their outreach to immigrant families. 

Although P-EBT has gotten off to a slow start, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has now approved P-EBT in 22 states, with many other states still working on their applications or waiting for approval. States may issue P-EBT benefits retroactively to the date of school closures. For many states, the first step will be to send benefits to all families with school-age children who already participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Some states plan to automatically send EBT cards to eligible families who are not enrolled in SNAP, while others will require families to apply.

While most children in immigrant families are eligible for SNAP, historically they have participated at lower rates than children of U.S.-born parents. The recent expansion of the public charge test has increased fear and confusion for immigrant families, who worry that participating in public benefit programs could lead to immigration-related consequences. Before COVID-19 hit, immigrant participation in SNAP was already declining, and social services providers gave first-hand accounts of immigrant families being afraid to participate in nutrition programs. With immigrants over-represented in industries that have been hard-hit by pandemic layoffs, ensuring access to nutrition assistance is more important than ever. 

As state agencies figure out how to identify and get benefits to eligible students, they must prioritize outreach to immigrant families. Below are five recommendations to improve P-EBT outreach to immigrant families. 

  • For families who can’t be issued benefits based on data from other programs, states should develop a simple application that is easily accessible online and by phone in multiple languages. 
  • The application should clearly state that a Social Security number is not required. 
  • Outreach materials should be explicit that the public charge test does not consider receipt of P-EBT benefits and that using P-EBT benefits will not impact a parent or child’s immigration status. The Massachusetts website includes excellent clarification on these points. Materials should also explain that families’ use of P-EBT benefits won’t be shared with immigration enforcement. 
  • Agencies should translate documents, including flyers, notification letters, and electronic information, into the frequently encountered languages of limited English proficiency groups in their community who are likely eligible for P-EBT benefits. 
  • Agencies should reach out to individuals and trusted messengers in the community. Social workers, immigration attorneys, health clinics, school districts, and food banks must all be aware of the broad immigrant eligibility for the P-EBT program so they can assist with outreach to families who aren’t already enrolled in SNAP.  Schools should proactively communicate with families about the program, how to apply (if applicable), and how to use the benefit.

P-EBT can be a vital economic stabilizer for families with school-age children during these challenging times. States that haven’t already applied should do so as soon as possible and take advantage of this rare opportunity to use federal dollars to support all children in families with low incomes, including immigrant families. For the growing number of states that have been approved for P-EBT, the success of the program will depend on thoughtful, inclusive implementation efforts.