In this Sept. 11, 2010 file photo, Temeka Williams, right, of Detroit, uses her EBT/Bridge Card tokens for a purchase from Elizabeth and Gary Lauber from Sweet Delights at the Farmer's Market in Detroit. House approval of a scaled-back farm bill is setting up what could be an even bigger fight over food stamps and the role of domestic food aid in the United States. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
In this Sept. 11, 2010 file photo, Temeka Williams, right, of Detroit, uses her EBT/Bridge Card tokens for a purchase from Elizabeth and Gary Lauber from Sweet Delights at the Farmer's Market in Detroit. House approval of a scaled-back farm bill is setting up what could be an even bigger fight over food stamps and the role of domestic food aid in the United States. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

With schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, parents of kids with free or reduced lunches have to make up for meals their children are missing. Michigan is the first state to help those families out.

TAYLOR, MI — Bethann Wyrick’s son, Malik, has had a hard time adapting to the new normal.

With schools closed due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, he faces challenges ranging from getting into a routine of homework without classes to finding outlets for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Worrying about how he’d get lunch was just another problem for Wyrick.

But when she checked the balance of her Bridge card, Michigan’s EBT vehicle for food assistance, she noticed an extra $81. That little bit extra came to Wyrick courtesy of a federal program that Michigan is the first state to implement called the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, or P-EBT. 

“It definitely helps bring in more snacks and fruits and vegetables and stuff like that for him to eat at lunchtime,” Wyrick told the Gander. “It definitely helped us a little bit, for sure.”

The food benefits go to families with children ages 5-18 enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program provided by the Michigan Department of Education. The state announced the program covers 895,000 children in Michigan, both in families that already receive food assistance and those who don’t. The P-EBT program fortifies and supplements the efforts of local school districts to provide food at over 2,000 stationary locations and nearly 700 mobile sites throughout Michigan.

Families who do not already have a Bridge Card will have to wait to receive one in the mail, under the name of the oldest student in the household. Those cards are expected to arrive in early May, the state reports. 

Michigan was the first state to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to operate a P-EBT program. P-EBT joins other USDA policies designed to help child nutrition in a time where schools across the nation are closing, including increased flexibility for the other child nutrition programs USDA operates. 

In Michigan, 15% of the population and 18% of children specifically live in food-insecure households according to data from advocates at Feeding America. That means that the family lacks the ability to regularly ensure all members of the household have the needed amount of food to live a healthy, active life. 70% of those households qualify for some manner of food assistance. But that data comes from before the coronavirus pandemic. 

The pandemic has put more people than ever in need of financial assistance.

Alyssa Lewerenz is an attorney focusing on labor law from Warren, and faces furlough as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. She is applying for food assistance, though her own child is too young to qualify her for P-EBT. She’s able to make ends meet, but only thanks to government support.

“[EBT], if we are approved, will definitely put us in a better position to ensure other bills are paid while being able to buy groceries,”  Lewerenz told the Gander. “Granted, the additional funds for unemployment will also be huge. Without that, I would definitely be more reliant on food assistance.”

Though she didn’t expect to be in this situation, Lewerenz hopes that one good thing can come out of this crisis though — understanding.

“I think a lot of people are finding themselves in positions they didn’t think they would,” she said. “And I hope some people come out of this with a little grace and empathy for people who need government assistance.”

As for Wyrick, her disability support hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic so the added funds from P-EBT balance out the higher costs of supplying more meals fairly well. That frees her up to focus on other concerns like her daughter working as an intensive care nurse and being regularly exposed to the virus or addressing her son’s mental health during the pandemic. 

“I’m trying to keep my head together,” Wyrick said. “It’s a problem but not a problem I can’t deal with. I feel greatly, greatly blessed that it’s not affecting me as hard as it has my loved ones and my friends.”

Families eligible for P-EBT can use their Bridge Cards like normal EBT users, anywhere the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is accepted