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WASHINGTON -- The families of schoolchildren who qualify for free or reduced-price meals will receive special Pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, state officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday.

The money -- a one-time amount of $319 per child -- is intended to offset the families' cost of meals that the youths would normally have eaten at school but didn't because of coronavirus-related closures.

In Arkansas, there are 303,120 students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to the state Department of Education and the Department of Human Services.

A majority of the students -- 180,316 -- are from families that don't receive traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Families already participating in SNAP will receive an extra $319 per student on their electronic benefits transfer cards during the last week of May, officials said.

Those who aren't enrolled in SNAP already will be mailed EBT cards.

Overall, low-income Arkansas families will receive a total of $96 million in Pandemic SNAP benefits.

Families with incomes up to 185% of the federal poverty level qualify for the lunch program, officials said. That level, for a family of four in Arkansas, is about $48,000 a year.

Arkansas officials, who had requested the aid, welcomed the USDA approval.

"We are pleased that this grant will provide more resources for families' nutrition during this difficult time. Arkansas has a high level of food insecurity and this will help protect our children and families," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a written statement.

The extra funding was authorized by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed into law March 18.

Thirty-three other states have already been granted similar approval, as has the District of Columbia.

"The implementation of Pandemic EBT is in line with USDA's commitment to keep Americans safe, secure, and healthy during this national emergency and to keep kids fed when schools are closed," the federal department said in its official announcement. "USDA is working with states and local authorities to ensure schools and other program operators can continue to feed children."

Kathy Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, said the USDA approval is "really important" for the state.

"When kids whose families rely on free and reduced meals at school are out of school, that really impacts a family's budget. We've obviously been out of school since mid-March," she said.

The USDA allows states to provide $5.70 per child per school day that was missed, Webb said.

Since the coronavirus shutdown, the number of people seeking food bank assistance has jumped 40%-50% in some locations, she said.

"They're seeing a lot of new people who have never been to a food pantry before who have never thought they would use a food pantry," she said.

Friday's approval will provide a boost to families that are struggling, she said.

"It really is a big deal, and it will help Arkansas retailers, too," she said. "It's good for the economy. It helps the families that struggle with hunger but it also helps the community."

Metro on 05/23/2020

Print Headline: One-time food aid for kids unveiled

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