A food-assistance program designed to help thousands of Durham families got off to an inauspicious start last week when a virtual public forum got Zoombombed by pornographic images. 

“The meeting shut down in five seconds when we saw what was happening. It was pretty nasty,” says Spencer Bradford, executive director of Durham Congregations In Action, which sponsored the forum. Bradford says the vulgar images appeared about 30 minutes into the meeting, which had about 20 participants. “We were trying to do a good thing, and the wickedness of the world can’t restrain itself.”

The DCIA was hoping to spread the word about Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, or P-EBT cards, which are available to students throughout the state under a program Governor Cooper announced last month.

Starting this week, Durham families with children who received free or reduced lunches will begin receiving a food benefits card through a program administered by the Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Health and Human Services.  

Families were initially earmarked to receive $250 in P-EBT benefits per child, provided in two installments, with the possibility of an additional benefit if schools are closed beyond May 15. Once the state made decided to do that, the state increased that amount. Families will be able to use the P-EBT cards to purchase food items at EBT authorized retailers, including most major grocery stores.

Bradford says there will be two rounds of payments. The first—$194 for each child—will cover the period from when schools closed through April. The second—$177 per child—will cover May and June.

For families who already receive food stamps, the state will use direct deposit to add the benefits to their EBT accounts. 

“That’s the really efficient part of the program,” Bradford says. “The more challenging part is with the families who don’t receive [food stamp] benefits, and will be getting EBT cards in the mail.”

The forum presented an opportunity for clergy members, local leaders, and activists to address the concerns of families who have moved and might not receive the EBT cards quickly, as well as to address potential language barriers for immigrant families, including undocumented households that are ineligible for federal benefits yet can receive a P-EBT card.

Bradford says families who have had a change of address since enrolling their child in the public schools should contact their school’s nutrition office to update their change of address. Families have four weeks to register; eligible families can call 888-892-1162 for more information.

As for the Zoombomber, Bradford says DCIA’s email list consists of more than 600 people, and he advertised the forum on Facebook a few hours before it began. He was short-handed that day and didn’t have anyone to set up a virtual waiting room before participating in the forum.

“Apparently, that was a mistake,” he says. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. 

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