While most Maine households with schoolchildren received pandemic relief debit cards last week loaded with money to buy groceries, thousands of families did not.

That’s because they live in school districts where staff failed to fill out federal paperwork that was required to distribute cards to all families, not just those who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, who represents one of the areas that received a more limited distribution of EBT cards, said that reasoning seemed arbitrary and carried unintended consequences.

Mastraccio is disappointed in the Mills administration’s rollout of the $166 million program, which also came under scrutiny last week because it took many school officials by surprise and arrived at homes in unlabeled envelopes without much explanation. Some people threw the cards away thinking they were junk mail.

But the cards are legitimate, and were loaded with up to $120 per student in money for groceries, paid for with federal pandemic relief funds. For a family with three K-12 students, that’s potentially an extra $360 in grocery money.

“There are families in Sanford that could really use that money that didn’t receive it,” Mastraccio said. “It doesn’t seem fair.”


As federal pandemic relief dollars dry up, the P-EBT cards sent out last week were the final distribution of that funding stream.

School officials interviewed by the Press Herald said they were unaware that how they filled out federal school lunch paperwork could lead to the uneven distribution of pandemic relief funds.

A state education official, however, said schools were notified of the program’s rules.


One example of the disparity: A middle-class family with schoolchildren in Sanford didn’t get a pandemic EBT card last week, but a middle-class family with the same income living in Cape Elizabeth did.

About 141,000 of Maine’s 174,000 K-12 students live in districts that were eligible for the P-EBT cards regardless of income. Of the 33,000 remaining students, only those who were eligible for free and reduced lunches – roughly one-third or about 11,000 students – got the cards in the mail.


That means about 22,000 students were living in households that didn’t get the cards last week, but would have if they had lived in another district.

The eligibility requirements for the P-EBT cards were set up by the federal government, but state officials were tasked with communicating the program’s rules. The cards can be used to buy groceries at any store that accepts food stamps, also known as SNAP, although they are not connected to the food stamp program.

Some of the districts excluded from the widespread distribution of the P-EBT cards included Sanford, Augusta, Gorham, Falmouth, Waterville, Eliot, Hermon, Wells and Poland.

The reason the districts were left out had to do with deciding not to sign up to be a Special Provision 2 school under the federal school lunch program. Maine passed a law in 2021 that made school lunch free for all students, but school districts still have to submit paperwork to the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing what percentage of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Being a Special Provision 2 district means that districts could estimate the percentage of free-and-reduced lunch students rather than rely on families filling out forms.



Caroline Trinder, food service director for Old Orchard Beach schools, which is a Special Provision 2 district that did receive widespread distribution of the P-EBT cards, said the cards were not part of the discussion when the district decided in 2021 to become a Special Provision 2 district.

“We were encouraged (by the state) to opt into Provision 2 because it prevents us from having to do a lot of additional paperwork,” Trinder said. “It’s hard to ask a parent to fill out free-and-reduced lunch paperwork when they know regardless of whether they fill it out, lunch is still free.”

Trinder said neither the Maine Department of Education nor the Department of Health and Human Services communicated to her that deciding to become a Special Provision 2 district would have any connection to the P-EBT cards. She said that she later found a mention of the P-EBT cards “tucked away” in a newsletter. She said they were surprised by the card distributions last week.

“We didn’t know that people were going to be getting these cards until last week,” Trinder said.

Heather Perry, Gorham schools superintendent, said “there was no communication” by the state to districts about the P-EBT cards being related to becoming a Special Provision 2 district, and that “we were not aware of the implications” when deciding not to sign up.

Matt Nelson, Sanford’s superintendent, said his district also was not aware of the program’s connection to the P-EBT cards, and that it would have been better to have all the information in front of the district when making the decision. Nelson said the district was concerned that signing up for the Special Provision 2 program would jeopardize its eligibility for a summer free lunch program at Carl J. Lamb Elementary School.


And John Caverly, superintendent of RSU 35 in Eliot, whose students attend Marshwood High School, said “it was not clearly communicated by the Maine Department of Education or Maine DHHS. We did not understand that by not applying for Special Provision 2, that district families in our community would not have access to the P-EBT cards.”


But Marcus Mrowka, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, pointed to several newsletters and emails sent to school district officials that mentioned the P-EBT cards and needing to be a Special Provision 2 district or a district that qualified because of high numbers of lower-income students, called a Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP. CEP districts automatically qualified for widespread distribution of the P-EBT cards.

“The department communicated to (school officials) which students were eligible, including CEP/Special Provision 2 students, throughout the entirety of the P-EBT program,” Mrowka said in an email response to questions. “The department promoted P-EBT eligibility and the inclusion of Special Provision II/CEP students via listserv messages to school administrative units, trainings and webinars. This information was also posted to the DOE’s website and most webinars were shared on YouTube. DHHS also has information on their website. Our communications about P-EBT always included who was eligible, including students in CEP or Special Provision schools.”

The P-EBT program expanded from 81,000 students in 2022 to 141,000 in 2023, but eligibility was the same for both years. More districts signed on to be a Special Provision 2 district for the 2022-23 school year.

Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner, said the P-EBT cards are a “poorly-designed plan.”

“As we learn more about this program, it becomes increasingly clear that the Mills administration really botched it,” Morris said. “I’m not happy with the idea that wealthy families had access to this program while working-class families in certain areas did not, especially when my constituents’ tax dollars helped fund it.”

Families who don’t want the money can simply not use the cards or throw them away and the money will be returned to the federal government.

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