Auditor Issues Report on CDSS Pandemic Food Assistance Program

California State Auditor Elaine Howle this week published a report as part of her office’s high-risk audit program on COVID-19 pandemic food assistance programs under the authority of the California Department of Social Services (CDSS). CDSS is responsible for managing federal COVID-19 funds that were dedicated to two nutrition programs – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Emergency Allotment (SNAP-EA) and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) – intended to address increasing levels of food insecurity among residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Auditor Howle, CDSS quickly distributed SNAP-EA payments to eligible families. However, CDSS has taken many months to issue P-EBT payments for the majority of the school year 2020-21 and all of summer 2021, “undermining the program’s purpose.” Families, as a result, had to wait an average of more than 200 days to receive P-EBT payments that were intended to provide assistance in lieu of free or reduced-price meals children would have ordinarily received. CDSS has projected that families will have to wait at least 209 days on average to receive payments intended for the remainder of school year 2020-21.

Notably, the Auditor indicates the key factors that have delayed CDSS’ issuance of P-EBT funds have largely been outside of its control. Auditor Howle points to the timing of federal legislation and the associated guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as unclear communications from the federal government regarding expectations for states’ distribution of P-EBT funds for creating unavoidable delays in allocating payments. CDSS also had to work with capacity constraints of the vendor who produces benefit cards and food retailers that accept the cards.

Auditor Howle indicates that as of September 2021, nearly 500,000 P-EBT cards issued by CDSS for school year 2019-20 had not been used at all, leaving at least $182 million in payments unclaimed and at risk of reverting to the federal government. The Auditor’s Office sets forth recommendations for CDSS to ensure families are able to maximize their benefits. Specifically, CDSS is recommended to identify schools attended by children whose families have not used their P-EBT payments and request that those schools provide families with basic information about the program and their eligibility. CDSS, in response, agreed with the Auditor Howle’s findings and plans to implement the recommendations.

The full report on CDSS pandemic food assistance programs is available here.