Radene Hiatt and Karlene Keller, lunch staff at Vale Elementary School, hand out sacked breakfasts and lunches to local students on Monday, March 16, 2020. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

VALE – Malheur County families will begin receiving extra “grocery money” this month courtesy of a new state program. 

By July 30, families in nearly every school district should receive up to $136 per child to make up for the cost of feeding kids at home during months of virtual schooling. 

Families in the Jordan Valley, Juntura and Arock districts won’t get the money because their districts don’t administer lunch programs. 

All children who would normally receive a free lunch at school, as well as students at preschools in the area, are eligible for the program, called Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT). There are about 5,230 in that category throughout Malheur County. The payment is made on an electronic card issued to families in the mail.

Many schools in Malheur County, including Vale, Harper, and Ontario, provided grab-and-go or delivery-style meals during the pandemic. That doesn’t affect families’ eligibility for new benefits. 

“From July 22 to July 29, P-EBT cards and benefits will be issued to students,” said a press release from the state Department of Human Services. “P-EBT (cards) will mailed to families from a return address in South Dakota.”

The state agency urged families to open mail from an unfamiliar address in South Dakota to minimize the chances of missing out on their benefits. 

For families who already have an Oregon EBT card, the new benefits will be loaded automatically. In all cases, the money must be spent on food items, excluding hot food, vitamins and supplements.

Unlike some other public benefits, these benefits are also available to immigrants seeking legal status in the United States without being labeled a potential public charge.

The program will run for three months, with the amounts afforded to families varying over that period. 

The first benefits given correspond to October, November, and December 2020. If a student’s school was all virtual during that time, the family will receive the full allotment of $136 for that month, for that student. 

If a student’s school was in a hybrid model during that time, with some classes in person and others online, the family will receive a partial allotment of $75 for that month for that student. And if a student’s school was entirely in person during that time, the family will receive no benefit. 

The second set of benefits given correspond to January, February and March 2021, and the third set of benefits given correspond to April and May 2021. 

The dollar amounts afforded to each family will again depend on whether their students attended school entirely online, in a hybrid model, or entirely in person. 

Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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