Days before they expired, millions of dollars in last year’s child food assistance program went unclaimed.

Days before they expired, millions of dollars in last year’s child food assistance program went unclaimed.


Days before they expired, millions of dollars in last year's child food assistance program went unclaimed.


Lincoln — There are just a few days left to access the $6.6 million in grocery aid that was provided to Nebraska families as part of a child-focused food program last year before it is returned to the federal government.

The remaining amount comes from a federal program that was designed to assist low-income kids in feeding themselves when they were absent in school during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The program, called P-EBT, or Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, is the forerunner of the comparable but distinct Summer EBT program, which has garnered significant attention in Nebraska due to Gov. Jim Pillen’s initial refusal to accept the federal food assistance for children.

Expiration looms

Based on public documents received from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the following is the status of funding for the previous year: September 2023 saw the issuance of about $17 million in federal food aid benefits for the P-EBT program. Approximately 140,000 young people in Nebraska who qualified received $120 placed into plastic “electronic benefit transfer” cards the size of a wallet.

At participating grocery stores, these cards are used to pay for groceries in a manner similar to debit cards.

According to state data, $6.6 million was not yet accessible or spent as of the end of April. This means that over 55,000 pupils haven’t used their cards.

An end date approaches.

The benefits are lost if cards are not activated within 274 days of being issued. According to DHHS, the majority of Nebraska’s summer P-EBT cards for 2023 were distributed on September 12 and September 14, therefore the monies expire on June 14 and June 16, respectively.

A little number of cards that were issued on September 28 are set to expire on June 30.

The countdown of 274 days begins over each time a family purchases something. According to DHHS, if a family spent money this week, they would have more time to use the remaining card benefits.

Why not tapped?

Nebraska DHHS spokesman Jeff Powell said in a statement that the state agency can’t speculate as to why families haven’t used the funds issued to them. But he added: “The amount of unspent benefits is not out of the ordinary for federal benefits such as these.

 A sign noting the acceptance of electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards is displayed at a convenience store in Richmond, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) 

He said the department “is reaching out to households whose benefits are potentially being expunged.” The statement did not elaborate on the type of outreach, or what the results have been so far.

To bring awareness to the federal pandemic-era program, Powell said, DHHS had issued press releases and created a page on its website. Information included eligibility and frequently asked questions. He said schools also provided information to eligible families.

Funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program aimed to provide benefits to children eligible for free and reduced-price meals through their school who lost access to food due to school closures and adjusted schedules.

Kids who receive SNAP benefits or other public assistance were to see the pandemic grocery aid added to existing EBT cards. Other eligible households that don’t receive that kind of public assistance were to receive a card via the U.S. Postal Service.




The amount of unclaimed 2023 EBT benefits surprised even Eric Savaiano of Nebraska Appleseed, who works with food and nutrition initiatives. He and Appleseed helped lead an effort this year to bring awareness to Nebraskans about the Summer EBT program.

 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) 

“That is a pretty high percentage,” Savaiano said of funds unclaimed from the pandemic grocery aid. “It shows there is more work to be done to get the word out to the community.”

Savaiano suspects the primary reason for not using the grocery aid is unawareness, though some might choose not to participate. He said a slice of families, for instance, might have received a card because they are in a “community eligibility provision” school site, where free and reduced lunches are based on community needs and not necessarily individual household income.

State Sen. Jen Day, who led a letter-writing campaign among lawmakers to urge Nebraska’s participation in the 2024 Summer EBT program, agreed with DHHS that unspent benefits are typical in public assistance programs.

But she hopes the state continues to seek better efficiency in reaching those in need, including families whose first language is not English.

“We have to work on streamlining and becoming more efficient with the application process,” she said.


Other states


Indeed, unclaimed funds in the previous youth-focused pandemic grocery aid program provides useful lessons for this summer’s EBT program, which was recently launched, says David Rubel, a New York City-based consultant who has looked into pandemic EBT use and unexpended funds in other states as well as Nebraska.

EBT food aid
 About 30 educators, lawmakers and child advocates rallied at the Governor’s Residence on Dec. 29, 2023. They called on Gov. Pillen to change his mind about rejecting a federal grocery aid program. He eventually did. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner) 

Rubel sought public records from several states, including Nebraska. His research also showed  that in summer 2022, about 30% of the grocery aid cards issued to Nebraska residents expired, leaving millions of dollars unspent. That unused portion of cards was a higher share than in the five other states he looked into that year.

This year, Nebraska was among the first states to start issuing benefits for the Summer EBT 2024 program. Participating families in the current program have 122 days to spend the full amount of $120 per child. Any money not spent on Day 123 is to be automatically removed.

Given the large number of families that have not used previous benefits, Rubel recommends that states undertake publicity campaigns to ensure maximum usage and to underscore the 122-day spend-or-lose rule. He said school districts are key since they typically have text, email and most current family contact information.

Said Rubel: “Summer-EBT — with a potential $21 million for struggling Nebraska families — is an opportunity to right the ship.”

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