MAINE — With summer in full swing, thousands of households in Maine will be receiving EBT cards in the mail to help provide their children with healthy nutrition while school is out.

The federal program is called SUN Bucks, also known as Summer EBT. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ website, almost 100,000 Maine students were automatically enrolled in the program to receive a one-time $120 in 2024.

As the state navigates its first year of running the program, many families are not aware of their soon-to-arrive EBT card. Despite the automatic enrollment for many, some households might have to check their children’s eligibility and apply before the Aug. 15 deadline.

Communication about the program is taking time. Maine’s Office for Family Independence mailed notification letters to some of the eligible households in late May. However, some families who received the first dispatch of cards were confused because of a lack of prior notice, similar to what happened with the pandemic EBT rollout.

“The (pandemic EBT) cards were in an unmarked envelope addressed to children. My son received one. When I got the card in the mail, it just had this white envelope,” Anna Korsen, a policy and program director with Full Plates, Full Potential, said. The nonprofit is a Good Shepherd Food Bank partner, with operations throughout Maine. “Even though I was helping the state to do outreach, I was confused too. I had been saying to people, ‘you should expect a white envelope that’s kind of unmarked, don’t throw it away.'”

“There is still plenty of outreach to do,” Korsen said. “So much of that is the rushed nature of these new programs being rolled out so quickly. We are trying to do a better job this time.”

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Early reports suggest that unmarked envelopes are back again, this time carrying SUN Bucks. However, a new approach called “streamlined certification” has made automatic enrollment possible for many, eliminating a paperwork barrier that caused more than 20,000 Maine students to be left out of the pandemic relief program last year.

“In order to be eligible to receive SUN Bucks, a child in Maine simply needs to be eligible for free and reduced-price meals at school,” Korsen said. What streamlined certification does is use existing information to determine eligible households.

“There is a lot of different programs that a family or a child could already be participating in. Then, they are automatically enrolled in SUN Bucks (based on the existing information.) That’s the streamlined certification piece of it,” Korsen continued.

“Streamlined certification means that the agency, in this case the Office of Family Independence under the Department of Health and Human Services, can use existing information that’s known to them through participation in other programs to directly certify or directly find someone eligible for benefits,” Alex Carter, a policy advocate at Maine Equal Justice, said.

According to DHHS spokesperson Lindsay Hammes, 11,199 school-age children were automatically enrolled for SUN Bucks in Androscoggin County. In Oxford County, automatic enrollments amounted to 5,660. In Franklin County, the number was 2,601.

However, enrollment does not mean an EBT card will arrive in the mail for households participating in other programs. Instead, the funds will be made through their existing cards.

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An EBT card known as a Pine Tree Card, which is loaded with SUN Bucks. Submitted photo

For households enrolled in SNAP, also known as food stamps, SUN Bucks will be loaded to their existing EBT card, known as the Pine Tree card. Children who were previously recipients of P-EBT and are not enrolled in SNAP, will receive their benefits on their existing P-EBT card.

Children eligible for SUN Bucks who are not enrolled in SNAP and who have never been enrolled in P-EBT, will automatically receive a Pine Tree card with their benefit in it within the coming weeks.

Funds can be used as soon as the card arrives. Families should be sure to use their SUN Bucks within four months of issuance. If not, the unused portion will be returned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“If families think that they may be eligible, if they’re having a hard time purchasing groceries right now, Korsen said, “I really encourage them to go to our screener. Everything’s expensive. So why not? Why not get some help with food, which is so important?”

Families can also double the value of their SUN Bucks by using them to buy fresh local products at Harvest Bucks and retailers participating in the Farm Fresh Rewards program.

The benefits are 100% federally funded. However, the state is responsible for half the cost of administering it, Hammes said.

“Maine DHHS expects this program to continue, though there may be changes based on the final plan approved by the USDA for 2025,” Hammes said.

For more information about eligibility, applications, and more, visit the Department of Health and Human Services’ SUN Bucks page or mainesunbucks.com. More information about Harvest Bucks and participating locations are available at maineharvestbucks.org.

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