Responding Quickly in Times of Crisis

How Michigan harnessed existing infrastructure to get food on the table faster for families in need during COVID-19

Kids need to eat to grow. But when schools closed and transitioned to a virtual learning model at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it meant many students in Michigan were going hungry.

“Kids were uprooted from their schools and sent home for virtual learning – where food might have already been a scarcity,” explains Dawn Sweeney, Michigan SNAP State Administrator. “They were used to eating breakfast and lunch at school – suddenly, at home, there isn’t enough to go around.”

The P-EBT program was created in 2020 to address food insecurity among school children during the pandemic. The program authorized states to create emergency plans that would provide food assistance to eligible kids when schools were closed due to a public health emergency, like COVID-19. Each state created its own implementation plan – the speed at which they were able to launch meant getting food on the table faster for those kids who needed it.

Michigan was the first state to get their program approved, up, and running. By April, Michigan families started receiving $127 per eligible child each month.

This is the story about how the Michigan Department of Health and Human services (MDHHS) worked across agencies and organizations to get food assistance benefits to students and their families quickly in a time of crisis.

A common goal to rally around

Before P-EBT legislation was even passed, leaders in Michigan made it clear that distributing benefits to school children was a top priority, and that the program needed to be implemented quickly. This high-level mandate gave different groups and organizations, many of which would be working together for the first time, a common goal to rally around. It made them feel like one team, uniting to get benefits out the door as quickly as possible.

“Our end goal was imperative and we all agreed on it: Get benefits out to children who need them. Period,” explains Kathy Cornell, MDHHS administrative manager. “For us, it was that simple.”

Fueled by existing data and infrastructure

Michigan was able to move faster than other states because it harnessed the power of existing data and infrastructure to determine eligibility and distribute benefits.

Families didn’t even need to apply to receive the benefit. Instead, data-sharing from the Department of Education helped MDHHS determine eligibility on their behalf.

“We already had a data-sharing agreement with the Michigan Department of Education because we provide school meal information for them every year. We were able to build off that and use our existing relationships to get it out the door quickly.”

– Dawn Sweeney, Michigan SNAP State Administrator

Using existing infrastructure, MDHHS opted to issue benefits by mail and re-use existing debit cards for families already receiving benefits. Meaning a card already in their pocket or wallet would automatically be loaded with the new stipend – no need to wait for a check in the mail. For families who were receiving food assistance for the first time, a debit card arrived by mail in April which they could start using immediately.

For families, many already struggling during a global pandemic, reducing the steps required to get healthy meals on the table for their kids made all the difference.

A seat for everyone at the table

To identify families who might not be represented in the existing public schools data, MDHHS partnered with local superintendents, and representatives from public and private schools to ensure no student was missed.

“We were able to bring in the non-public schools and charter schools that might have traditionally been overlooked because they don't fall under the same reporting requirements,” explains Kathy Cornell.

“Instead of getting caught up on bureaucratic barriers, we started to look at problems in a different way. We shifted from ‘No, we can’t do that in 2 months’ to ‘What can we do to get there more quickly?”

– Dawn Sweeney, Michigan SNAP State Administrator

They used bi-weekly meetings as a space to collaborate, share information, and get P-EBT off the ground quickly. The meetings gave stakeholders across each of these organizations a forum to voice concerns and share ideas. They also served as a place to share data about school lunch and assistance programs that would ultimately inform which students were eligible for the P-EBT benefit.

Make or break

After a swift, successful initial rollout in April 2020, Michigan’s P-EBT program has continued to evolve to support the community even more effectively. MDHHS now has dedicated processes and staff in place to continue to serve food assistance benefits.

“We have a process for complaints, a process for reconsiderations, a process for the schools to reach out for information and get feedback – it’s a pretty well oiled machine now,” explains Sweeney.

One example of how the program has evolved is its website. When Michigan’s P-EBT launched last year they set up a call center to answer questions from residents and schools about the program. Now, they’ve taken some of those most common questions and created an FAQ section on their website where they can easily point folks to for answers and more resources.

They’ve also hired full-time staff to support P-EBT, so it’s less “all-hands-on-deck” than it was during the initial launch.

“It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears but when you hear all the positive stories coming up from schools and from parents, it makes it worth it,” says Stacy Houghtaling, who worked as the interim State Assistant Administrator to Lew Roubal, Chief Deputy Director for Opportunity, at MDHHS. “In the past 15 months kids have had to go through some incredible changes – at least they didn’t have to miss meals.”

Over 810,000 children in Michigan have received P-EBT benefits over the course of the last year. Thanks to its swift implementation strategy and cross-agency collaboration, Michigan’s P-EBT program continues to outshine those in other states, where families are left waiting and wondering when they’ll get assistance.

“For a lot of families, this program was make or break,” says Sweeney. “Parents could put food on the table for their kids and maybe even afford to buy healthier options than they would have otherwise.”

Lessons in moving quickly in times of crisis

  1. The power of proactive data-sharing: Proactive investments in cross-agency partnerships and data-sharing meant that, during a reactive moment of crisis, MDHSS could respond more quickly and effectively. Plugging into existing infrastructure, like the debit cards families were already using, meant that MDHHS didn’t need to create an entire process from scratch and could launch more swiftly too.

  2. Eliminate administrative hurdles wherever possible:When folks are already struggling, try to eliminate as many hoops and hurdles from the process as possible. If you can, do the work for them – this was MDHHS’s approach when they used existing data to determine program eligibility instead of an application. This strategy prioritized access to benefits in a time of crisis. Not having to fill out an application for the program meant it was more accessible to all residents, no matter their primary language, familiarity with the system, or bandwidth to get it done. Less room for user error in applications meant faster access to benefits too.

  3. Maximize the impact of stakeholder meetings: To make stakeholder discussions more efficient and effective, meetings need to have structure. MDHHS leaned into a few strategies to do this. To keep the meetings on track, they provided an agenda that outlined the desired outcome and decisions that needed to be made. If a conversation was churning, it was assigned to an individual or working group who would report back the following week. This allowed the team to move quickly, make the best use of time together, and tackle issues as they came up along the way.

  • Photo: Naman Mandhan