Please see this article from the Chicago Tribune regarding P-EBT food benefit cards. If you are not a family in need and would like to pay it forward, see below for ideas.

Chicago Tribune |

By Hannah Leone and Jenny Whidden

Mar 20, 2021 at 8:18 AM 

As food benefit cards worth $450 begin to arrive in the mailboxes of Chicago Public Schools families — whether or not they need the money — some mutual aid groups are taking advantage of the opportunity to help their communities.

“While some families may not need the benefits, thousands of other households will be able to put them to good use,” Greater Chicago Food Depository spokesman Greg Trotter said in an email. “Fewer children will go to bed hungry as a result.”

More than three-quarters of CPS students are considered economically disadvantaged. The entire district is eligible for cards through the federal Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer program, or P-EBT, through a U.S. Department of Agriculture provision allowing high-poverty school districts such as CPS to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students without requiring families to apply.

The P-EBT program was intended to assist families in urgent need of help, Trotter said. “Had the government taken additional steps to means test P-EBT based on household income, benefits would have been delayed for families who need food assistance now,” he said. “It would have placed an additional burden on households struggling with food insecurity during a historic economic crisis.”

A fact sheet complied by CPS tells families who don’t want the money just not to use it, and it will disappear from the card after a year. The district also said people can call 833-621-0737 to ask for the account to be emptied immediately, cautioning that once the money is gone, it can’t be reissued.

Karen Krausen-Ferrer, who volunteers with the West Ridge Community Response Team, looks over one of the 20 boxes of food that were dropped off to her garage in Chicago on Friday, March 19, 2021. She coordinates the food boxes and makes sure they are all delivered.

Karen Krausen-Ferrer, who volunteers with the West Ridge Community Response Team, looks over one of the 20 boxes of food that were dropped off to her garage in Chicago on Friday, March 19, 2021. She coordinates the food boxes and makes sure they are all delivered. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

But with government aid failing to solve the financial challenges facing many Chicagoans, some community groups are effectively trying to redistribute the money instead.

Cassandra Kaczocha, whose children attend Boone Elementary, used her Twitter account to encourage other CPS parents who don’t need the P-EBT card to use it for their groceries and donate the equivalent amount to one of many mutual aid efforts around the city.

Kaczocha is on the board for Raise Your Hand for Public Education Illinois and does organizing work with the West Ridge Community Response Team, one of many mutual aid groups all over the city that formed or grew in response to the pandemic’s toll.

Group members have been taking hotline calls and talking with neighbors about ways to donate the funds, she said. Options include gift cards and shopping directly for another person using a wish list they provide.

“A lot of people don’t know it, but you can’t use those benefits for things like diapers and shampoo,” Kaczocha said. “So, being able to get the cash (allows for) purchasing the specific things families have been calling our hotline about.”

Last year, when CPS families were first eligible for P-EBT cards, Kaczocha used the money to buy 15 cans of infant formula, which was at the top of the list until someone donated “a literal truckload,” she said. Other common requests have included school and cleaning supplies.

Though she admitted it “feels weird to not need it and just be given $450,” Kaczocha said it’s better that the money finds its way to people who do need it.

Her experience with mutual aid efforts has underscored the need for assistance in communities like West Ridge, where many immigrant families don’t feel comfortable taking out public assistance, she said.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for people to give more than they normally would have been able to,” Kaczocha said. “Even with pandemic EBT and the stimulus checks people are getting, there’s still just so much need in the community.”

Lake View High School teacher Karen Krausen-Ferrer, who lives in West Ridge and is on the community response team’s steering committee, said about 40 people called the hotline during February. That’s in addition to 15 to 20 families initially referred through the hotline, whom she contacts about food boxes each week, depending on the number of boxes the group can get together. Krausen-Ferrer coordinates the food boxes and makes sure they are all delivered.

Karen Krausen-Ferrer, left, who volunteers with the West Ridge Community Response Team, and Kim Holmes, with Life Quilt Foundation, unload 20 boxes of food into Krausen-Ferrer's garage in Chicago on Friday, March 19, 2021. Families in need from the West Ridge community will either pick up their food boxes or have boxes dropped off.

Karen Krausen-Ferrer, left, who volunteers with the West Ridge Community Response Team, and Kim Holmes, with Life Quilt Foundation, unload 20 boxes of food into Krausen-Ferrer’s garage in Chicago on Friday, March 19, 2021. Families in need from the West Ridge community will either pick up their food boxes or have boxes dropped off. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

In her garage on Friday, another volunteer delivered boxes for others to pick up. Many of the people who pick up boxes for themselves also deliver some to families who don’t have cars, and a lot of neighbors that receive support from the group also volunteer, she said.

“You help because you’re a human and you can help other humans,” she said. Since starting the mutual aid group, she said volunteers have had conversations about continuing the work regardless of the status of the pandemic.

“The hotline could be something that just exists in our community,” she said.

Many people who call the hotline have restrictions such as a halal diet, making gift cards more helpful than food boxes. But the group was worried about potential legal issues with donating the P-EBT cards themselves, she said. “We can’t be like, ‘Hey give us your card,’ but we can make the pitch if this is just extra cash to you, there are neighbors in the community who could use your support,” Krausen-Ferrer said.

Earlier this month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the expansion of the federally funded food benefits program for children eligible for free and reduced-price meals who lack access to in-school lunch due to remote learning.

State officials said 1 million children statewide are eligible for the P-EBT program, which will provide up to $110 million in food benefits per month.

“In a pandemic, a nutritious diet is more than the fuel to get through e-learning, it’s also support for a strong immune system,” Pritzker said during the announcement at a Springfield middle school.

Families registered for free and reduced-price meals in districts that don’t automatically qualify will be enrolled in the program. The state planned to start mailing cards March 8.

The program provides one card per child and $6.82 for each school day that schools have been remote from August 2020 through June 2021. In March the cards will be loaded with funds for August through December, a second installment in April will cover January through February, and monthly installments will occur starting in May, according to CPS. The cards can be used at EBT-authorized retailers, which include most major grocery stores in Illinois.

During the 2019-20 school year, the program reached 764,000 students and provided $5.70 per day.

“The Food Depository has advocated for the continuation and expansion of the Pandemic EBT program, which has proven to be a lifeline for many families of school-aged children during the pandemic,” Trotter said. “We’re thrilled that more families and children will receive these benefits in the coming months. The need for food assistance remains extremely high.”

He added: “It’s important that these benefits are used as intended. We would encourage families who don’t need their benefits to find other ways to help, such as volunteering at the Food Depository or at their neighborhood food pantry.”

hleone@chicagotribune.com

jwhidden@chicagotribune.com

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