Food help expanded for children shut out of school by pandemic

As many as 1 million Illinois schoolchildren will get more nutritious meals after state officials received an expansion of a federally subsidized pandemic-relief program, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Tuesday.

Illinois is one of 16 states that sought additional assistance from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s program. In a news conference at Washington Middle School, Pritzker said the state will more than double the benefits it had been receiving and reach an additional 200,000 children.

The program helps feed families with children who cannot regularly attend school, where they receive free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches, because schools are closed to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

"A child whose family is food-insecure, has tremendous difficulty focusing on school compared to her classmates who don’t go to school hungry," Pritzker said.

The program provides $6.82 per child per day. That’s an increase of 19% over the $5.70 allowed last school year.

No registration is required. Credit-card-sized pandemic electronic benefits transfer cards will be mailed automatically to eligible families beginning next month. Those cards can be used at most major grocery stores in Illinois.

Pritzker’s Public Health Department announced 1,665 confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, with 27 more deaths, bringing the total in 11 months of the pandemic to 1,177,320 cases leading to 20,330 deaths.

Infection rates have been dropping for weeks in Illinois.

In Chicago, public health officials said Tuesday that the city’s seven-day average rate of positive tests hit 3.2%, which is the lowest since COVID-19 arrived in the city.

"Everything is heading the right direction," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said during a vaccination event for homeless people.

COVID-19 vaccinations are averaging 56,000 a day. More than 2.25 million shots have thus far been administered, each being the first or second of two required doses for inoculation. More than 500,000 shots have been given in Chicago.

Later Tuesday, Pritzker asked the Illinois Finance Authority to develop a $15 million low-interest loan program for small cities facing huge natural gas bills after this month’s extreme cold snap.

Officials explained that municipal utilities typically pay from $2 to $3 for each unit called a dekatherm. But those drawing from a pipeline running through central Illinois paid $225 per dekatherm from Feb. 13 to Feb 16.

The loan program would allow utilities to spread payments out instead of paying bills in full when they come due in the next few weeks.