Millions of children may not have access to lunch as schools close during the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of children may not have access to lunch as schools close during the coronavirus pandemic.

States say the Trump administration guidelines on getting children with virtual schooling food aid came too late.

Low-income families that rely on special benefits from the federal government to buy groceries could be in for a difficult month after President Donald Trump puts into effect eligibility requirements that will prevent some states from receiving funding. 

The program, called Pandemic-EBT or P-EBT, helps families get food on the table as a replacement for the free and subsidized meals students used to get at school. It provides families about $5.70 per day of every school day missed. 

When schools shut down due to the pandemic in the spring, states could quickly identify which families should receive the funding. But as schools reopen with a mix of in-person and remote learning options, it has become increasingly difficult to figure out who is—and isn’t—getting school meals.

The Agriculture Department (USDA) announced in early September that states need to take on the job of figuring out which students are in school or participating in remote learning to distribute aid. This already complicated task is made more challenging by the fact that there is no uniform learning method, and even within families one student might go to school a couple days a week while another participates in online learning full time. And states are expected to figure out their delivery systems before the end of September, when the money runs out. 

A spokesperson for the USDA told POLITICO that the agency acknowledges that some states are “finding it difficult to meet the statutory requirements.” 

The application process for another round of benefits is so cumbersome that some states won’t be able to get additional money before funding runs out on Sept. 30. 

When the school year began, USDA was slow to decide if states could do another round of P-EBT benefits. Officials originally announced in early September that states could plan for another set of payments. The original guidelines indicated that states could issue benefits only to students in districts where all instruction was virtual because of the quick turnaround. 

But in mid-September, officials at the USDA changed course and said that the simpler option was no longer allowed. 

Anti-hunger advocates have cited concerns that the sudden loss of funds for groceries will make childhood hunger rates rise. Data showed that families who received the funding in the spring and summer spent it almost immediately, indicating that there was a real need for the assistance. Census data also shows that child hunger rates dropped significantly in the weeks that the funding started flowing to the states.

Michigan planned on delivering $93 per student for families that qualify for free and reduced lunch and whose districts are participating in virtual classes. However, the new guidelines and time crunch mean that officials won’t be able to give out aid at all in September.

“It’s too late to comply with their new directive,” said Robert Gordon in an interview with POLITICO. Gordon serves as the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “They opened the door and then they closed the door, and the result is leaving tens of thousands of kids in Michigan without food.”