How FIS sped 6 million EBT cards to feed needy kids during the pandemic

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When the pandemic shut classrooms across the U.S. this year, the federal government looked for a quick solution to prevent millions of needy students who typically receive meals at school from going hungry.

Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the government proposed covering the cost of lunch for eligible school-age children so families could purchase the equivalent value of those meals at stores using special Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) cards.

FIS—already the U.S.’s largest EBT card provider with 53% of the market—won approval for its plan to create and deliver up to 7 million new cards for eligible families within a tight deadline, according to Prashant Gupta, FIS’ vice president and general manager of the EBT business.

Though FIS already manages EBT cards delivering Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits within 30 states, the timing and specifics of the pandemic lunch-money EBT cards program were daunting, Gupta said.“It usually takes nine to 12 months to create a new EBT card program, and we had less than a month to pump out a new line of cards that could run on our closed-loop network,” Gupta said.

To meet the challenge, FIS radically streamlined certain processes and invented some new ones, he said.

Working around the clock with employees operating in quarantine conditions in remote offices and at its three U.S. card-production facilities, FIS slashed the typical delivery cycle of the P-EBT cards from months to 10 days, according to Gupta.

“We took the simplest approach and used a plain white card design with the state’s name printed on each one—that idea alone allowed us to manufacture the P-EBT cards in record time,” Gupta said.

Provisioning the cards was tougher, he said.

“The biggest challenge was gathering data from states about which students were eligible and making sure we had a thorough and accurate list,” he said.

Some households eligible for P-EBT cards overlapped with those receiving SNAP benefits. For those beneficiaries, FIS developed a process through its platform to digitally add school-meal funds to families’ existing EBT card balances.

Altogether FIS created new P-EBT cards for 6.5 million households, while three other, smaller providers separately created several thousand similar cards for the program.

FIS had to balance each state’s unique process for fulfilling P-EBT cards—some automatically mailed them to eligible households and some required families to apply online. Individual states supported the P-EBT cards’ rollout with mailers and other promotions.

Given the fact that FIS typically supports EBT cards for 10 million U.S. households—which encompasses 20 million EBT cards—suddenly adding 6.5 million additional P-EBT cards to the mix required further adjustments.

“There was a lot of learning as we went along, as we made sure our systems could rapidly scale up and handle this significant number of new transactions,” Gupta said.

One of the EBT card program breakthroughs to come out of the pandemic was the expanded capability enabling SNAP beneficiaries to purchase food online for the first time instead of physically visiting stores, to minimize viral spread.

Coincidentally, the federal government’s Food and Nutrition Service in April 2019 launched a two-year pilot enabling SNAP households to buy food online in eight states, with FIS supporting the pilot in Oregon, Washington and Nebraska.

When coronavirus struck, the government rapidly expanded the pilot. Currently SNAP customers can buy groceries online in 45 states, with Amazon, Walmart and ShopRite among approved merchants.

“Fortunately, we were already successfully testing EBT purchasing online when the pandemic hit and the government asked us to immediately expand it—that timing was just lucky,” Gupta said.

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