Many benefit programs implemented to provide aid during the COVID-19 pandemic have received the attention needed to alert those eligible for them to their availability. One that has not is a worthwhile program to assist families whose children either were, when schools closed for distance-learning this spring, or are now, eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. That program is ending soon, and the difficulty in getting the word out to many eligible parents and guardians risks a significant number of them failing to apply by the fast-approaching Aug. 24 deadline.

The so-called P-EBT — short for Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program — was authorized in March by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and New Hampshire was granted the necessary federal waiver for its program in May. It’s a sensibly conceived program that recognizes struggling families who rely on school meal programs for their children’s nutritional needs lost out on those benefits while the schools were shuttered.

Those eligible can receive P-EBT benefits covering the cost of the meals students didn’t receive while attending school remotely, or $5.70 per child per day. The benefits can be spent on any of the food items eligible for purchase with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) benefits wherever SNAP/EBT cards are accepted.

P-EBT benefits have been efficiently distributed to the families of those receiving SNAP benefits whose children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Because they already have SNAP/EBT cards, they have not needed to apply, and the P-EBT benefits have been automatically loaded onto their cards.

But families who are not receiving SNAP benefits and whose children are eligible for school-meal assistance must apply for P-EBT benefits, and they may not know they’re eligible. Jake Leon, the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services communications director, estimated in a report shared by the Granite State News Collaborative that news of the program may not have gotten to families of 7,500 of the estimated 18,000 children eligible for non-SNAP P-EBT food benefits.

There also may be a misunderstanding that SNAP eligibility is required to be P-EBT eligible, which is not the case. Further, families whose financial situation during the pandemic has changed due to job loss or other income change may be eligible even if they weren’t previously.

Somewhat unfathomably, DHHS, which administers SNAP and P-EBT benefits, has encountered barriers to reaching out to those families through the state Department of Education, which has been the agency responsible for determinations regarding the school-meal assistance program, Leon also reported.

This bureaucratic disconnect must clearly be addressed by the state. Food insecurity has been on the rise since the pandemic’s outbreak. Clearly COVID-19’s economic effects will last much longer than was anticipated in March. Also, many schools are adopting a hybrid model that will have schoolkids at home for some school days each week, and they may well be forced to return to fully remote if the spread of COVID-19 can’t be contained. Renewed or other relief programs to combat food insecurity would seem likely, and coordination of those programs across agencies could be critical.

That won’t happen by Aug. 24, however. Families who haven’t yet done so must act fast to access their P-EBT benefits. The short, online application can be completed and submitted on the state’s services gateway portal at https://nheasy.nh.gov, and P-EBT information is available by calling 271-7373. Adding to the time crunch, parents or guardians may first need to obtain from their school district a verification of eligibility for school-meal assistance before submitting the P-EBT application to the state.

At a time when critical coronavirus relief programs such as enhanced unemployment benefits and the eviction moratorium have, at least for now, expired, the financial pressure on families struggling with food insecurity is even greater, and tapping into P-EBT assistance will surely help address nutritional needs. Please pass the word to any parent or guardian who might possibly be eligible.