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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Skylar Barnett, a volunteer from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's chapter of Alpha Gamma Delta, places food into a box for those in need at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank during the launch of Hunger Action Month Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Note: This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on June 7 to correct the name of the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

At the onset of the pandemic, the government settled on debit cards for families as a way to provide food to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch but weren't attending school — or the cafeteria — in person.

The cards would be loaded with government funds, which families could use to purchase and prepare their own school lunches.

Due to a delayed rollout, however, the benefits did not reach some Hamilton County families until the end of the school year, meaning some families are getting hundreds of dollars worth of make-up payments now.

It also means some low-income or food insecure households went for months without the benefits they were entitled to under the program, known as Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer or P-EBT.

Area parents that qualified for the program began receiving cards in April for the third round of the program, which covers October through the end of the school year. Funding for the program comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The number of students in Hamilton County that qualified to receive benefits fluctuated month to month, based on the number of students that were enrolled virtually or attended on the hybrid schedule, which included in-person learning and virtual learning, depending upon Hamilton County's COVID-19 case counts and other factors.

Hamilton County Students Receiving P-EBT Benefits Monthly

August & September: 11,624

October: 13,250

November: 28,648

December: 28,758

January: 28,582

February: 26,191

March: 10,359

April: 9,859

May: 10,393

Summer: 27,881

Source: Hamilton County Schools

Students who remained fully virtual will receive $122.76 per student per month, said Kristen Nauss, Hamilton County Schools director of school nutrition. For hybrid students, the amount is $51.15 per student for October and $61.38 per student for subsequent months.

The benefits can be used for certain kinds of food, but not for items like prepared hot meals or supplements. P-EBT cards cover canned, fresh and frozen food such as fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products, eggs, meat, rice and beans.

The Tennessee Department of Human Services' original plan was to distribute money retroactively each month on the 20th day, Nauss said, with benefits for October and November 2020 distributed on Feb. 20, 2021, December 2020's benefits distributed on March 20, 2021 and so on. Nationwide, card rollout has been slow, however, and slower rollout in Hamilton County came in part due to card processing errors.

"One of the big problems that they had was that they were sending it to a card processor, who also was processing cards for lots of other states, and they were just overwhelmed. But then there were also some, we heard, issues with some of the files, that they thought that they had sent them over but somehow they never actually got processed," Nauss said. "So there was a big lag, some of our kids got them maybe early April and then several weeks later they were like, 'Whoops, we just realized that we didn't process all of them,' so, there were definitely some glitches along the way, as well."

The program will continue this summer with a flat rate of $375 per student, she said, and the USDA will continue the program as long as the U.S. remains in a public health emergency.

Families can contact DHS at 833-496-0661 with questions about the program.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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