Students confused as P-EBT cards only refilled for some

By Charlotte Price

For some Lane students, a little white card with their name and a 16-digit number was a hallmark of online and hybrid school years. 

Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, or P-EBT cards, were in the wallets of some students during the 2021-22 school year. One year later, however, they’ve become a bit more scarce, as city-wide confusion regarding the program rises. 

The Illinois Department of Human Services defines P-EBT as a temporary food benefit program operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cardholders cannot use the cards to buy hot, ready to eat foods; the cards are aimed towards family’s grocery shopping needs. Students and parents are not required to apply or prove their eligibility for P-EBT cards. 

P-EBT cards for this school year were intended to be issued over the six weeks from October to mid-November of 2022, according to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. However, some students still remain without their cards.

Student and parent confusion about when and how to receive new cards has created a key issue for Lane’s student body — P-EBT cards have been showing up in some students’ mailboxes at home without any warning or instruction.

According to Lane Assistant Principal Allison Hildebrandt, Lane was told by the Office of Student Health and Wellness last year that every student would have their card reloaded, and students didn’t need to apply. They didn’t include a time frame, and confusion still remains about who got the cards and why.

“We didn’t know if we qualified for it or why we received it,” said junior Olivia Kibbey, who received a new card recently. “We didn’t know if it was sent out completely to everyone or if we had just gotten it along with a specific demographic of people.” 

The CPS resources meant to answer these questions have been vague and do not address the recent inconsistencies. The Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) has an FAQ for the 2021-22 P-EBT and for the summer 2022 P-EBT, but does not mention cards to be distributed during the school year. The Illinois DHS has not responded to multiple attempts for comment from The Champion.

For Kibbey, the state-sponsored program had been a helpful resource both during online and in-person school.

“It was really nice to be able to buy groceries so that we could bring our own lunches, but then also be able to buy our own lunches and not have as much of a strain,” Kibbey said. 

Sophomore Brian Ray, who received a new card this year, said he appreciates the card for the extra room it leaves in his budget.

 “I end up spending less money on food and I use my money towards other things like electronics or going to the movies,” he said. “Rather than spending money on food, I just use my P-EBT.”

Because of the restrictions on buying hot food with P-EBT cards, some students shifted to using their cards to buy snack foods instead of full lunches. 

“Mostly I just used it for snacks, and I used it whenever I would go to Jewel-Osco,” Ray said. “Because I couldn’t use it for hot food, every time I got snacks I’d just use my P-EBT.” 

Even for students who don’t rely on the cards financially, they remain an important resource for ensuring that students are nourished. 

“Do I need it? No. Do I want it? Yeah, like it just makes me feel less bad about buying lunch, like a lot less bad,” said junior Jenny Mohring, who received a card this school year.

Though P-EBT benefits were conceived and first intended to be used in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are even more applicable now that students have returned to Lane in person.

“It’s more useful now because I’m going out more, and in the pandemic I was using it but like not every day as I’m using it now at school,” Ray said.

 Students have found the cards more useful now that they are away from home for lunch every day. 

“I didn’t use it at all during COVID,” Mohring said. “I used it after, when we started going back to school.” 

For those who have received cards, they have often come as a surprise.

“My dad thought I had ordered it, I thought my parents had ordered it,” Kibbey said. “I just kind of got it in the mail. I didn’t apply for it or anything.”

Mohring didn’t apply either. 

“It just randomly just showed up at my house,” she said. 

Students who haven’t received cards, like junior Genevieve Urganus, are bewildered as well. She received a P-EBT card in the first round of benefit distribution during the 2020-21 school year, but hasn’t received a new card for this school year.

“CPS didn’t really give us any information, so I didn’t even know it was possible. So if I could, I think I might, but I don’t know if I’m eligible or like why I didn’t get one,” Urganus said. 

The lack of clarity from CPS regarding who gets cards and when have created a confusing scene for students who are more eager for the P-EBT resources than ever.