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State agencies’ failure to coordinate quickly led to summer food aid delay

Emil Danailov, a volunteer and customer of the Plymouth Community Food Pantry, stocks the pantry shelves.
Emil Danailov, a volunteer and customer of the Plymouth Community Food Pantry, stocks the pantry shelves.

Thousands of families won’t receive expected additional summer food benefits until August because the state agencies responsible for the program failed to coordinate effectively to meet the June deadline.

Congress established the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program, or SUN Bucks, through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 to offer eligible families a one-time payment of $120 per child in additional food assistance. Connecticut was scheduled to launch its program in late June for the families of about 273,000 children.

But the process of getting the new program up and running took longer than expected, said Christine Stuart, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services. The benefits aren’t expected to be released until August.

“Summer EBT is a brand new program and with any program of this size it took a lot of coordination with several state agencies,” Stuart said in a written statement. “That coordination took us longer than anticipated and while we worked hard to minimize the impact on our clients, we recognize that we were unsuccessful in that effort.”

The explanation of the delay comes amid calls from Connecticut lawmakers for DSS to release more information about the program launch.

Last week, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven,; Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk,; and Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, issued a statement asking for more information into the weeks-long delay.

“Families expecting these benefits during the summer will be unable to access them until their children will already be preparing for the new school year,” the senators’ statement said. “Delays and issues happen, but the lack of explanation surrounding this change does not answer our constituents’ questions. The last-minute announcement will have a detrimental effect for thousands of families and will increase food insecurity across our communities.”

State Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, also sent a June 25 letter to the state asking for an explanation of the delay, how the agency had communicated with the public and when the money would be sent.

DSS was working with the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of Policy and Management to launch the program.

“DSS fully recognizes that this process did not unfold as it should, and the commissioner apologizes to the families who are impacted by the delay,” Stuart said. “Right now, DSS is working tirelessly with our internal and external partners to accelerate the process as quickly as we can in order to get these much needed benefits to Connecticut families.”

The program aims to address food insecurity, which often worsens for kids during the summer when they don’t have access to meals at school.

Connecticut families qualify for the summer program if they already receive certain food benefits or if their household income is less than 185% of the federal poverty level, according to the DSS website.

Over the last month, Connecticut’s 211 system has received more than 17,700 calls from people who need help with food, according to online data. Most of them were requests for help buying food.

Connecticut received its $32.7 million federal allocation for the program, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in May.

Stuart said the delay won’t affect any existing programs.

Although the delay may harm families, service providers have praised the idea as a moment in which Congress recognized a critical need for food assistance. Food insecurity when kids aren’t in school has been an issue for years.

“The truth is June, July, August are the three hardest months of the year for people facing food insecurity, and this program is a tremendous step forward,” said Jason Jakubowski, president and chief executive officer at the Connecticut Foodshare.

Resources for families experiencing food insecurity can be found online at ctfoodshare.org or by calling 211.

This story was originally published by The Connecticut Mirror July 1, 2024.

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