News of the strange COVID payments started circulating quietly among neighbors and friends last year in several affluent beachside communities of North County San Diego.

Food stamp cards carrying as much as $1,700 were arriving in the mailboxes of all students, even those living in multi-million-dollar homes at two local public high schools serving neighborhoods with some of the highest household incomes in the state. The cards were addressed to the students themselves, and some families with more than one child attending the same school received double the amount or more, at least $3,400 worth of cards.

As more people discovered the government-issued largesse, local community online chatrooms were sprinkled with questions on whether the cards were illegal and should be sent back, along with complaints of teens buying sushi and other expensive fare from Whole Foods and other pricey organic markets or using the unexpected funds to throw cookouts and graduation parties. The debit cards can only be used for groceries at supermarkets or Amazon, not in sit-down restaurants or fast-food chains.

Many parents of students receiving the cards, who requested anonymity to speak to RealClearPolitics, weren’t sure what to make of the checks, mainly because their families had never received food assistance from the state and federal government before. And even if they had, the sudden cash windfalls without any warning spurred a myriad of questions: Were they sent by mistake? Would using them trigger tax implications or put their children in a database designating them as recipients of government assistance? The answers from California’s  Department of Social Services, which sent the checks, were “No,” “no,” and “no.”

There wasn’t an easy answer for the broader, more penetrating query: Why did their students receive them from the state when more needy families attending different high schools in the same school district did not? Many of these families didn’t even qualify for the $1,400 in federal stimulus checks sent during the first year of the pandemic to households with incomes of $150,000 or less a year and single adults earning $75,000 or less. The terse information accompanying the P-EBT cards didn’t provide much clarity.

The California Department of Social Services explained that the households were receiving Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT, cards as part of a federal program intended to compensate families who had children eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals but not receiving them during COVID-related school closures in the 2020-2021 school year.

Some of the parents of California students who received the P-EBT cards don’t remember the schools providing free breakfast and lunch to all students before COVID. However, there were schools in the same district that offered drive-up free meals for any students who wanted them during pandemic school lockdowns. That led to even greater confusion over why the federal government was trying to compensate families who either utilized that free-meal service or chose not to.

An eligibility survey on a state website to answer the public’s questions isn’t all that helpful either. It includes questions about the child’s age, whether the majority of the students at the school attended in 2020-21 were enrolled in distance learning, and whether the child “was approved” to receive free or reduced-price school meals. If the answer was no to the last question, the survey responds that “at this time, it appears you may not be eligible for P-EBT 2.0 benefits.”

But many of the parents the online survey denied already had the cards with pre-loaded cash in their hands. They have since inundated the California Department of Social Services with their calls and questions. And even after receiving responses – that they were sent the funds in compliance with state and federal law – they remain bewildered by the payments.

In California, the broad eligibility rule for students receiving free meals is that a family of four must have an annual household income of $34,060 or less, and $48,470 or less for reduced-price school meals. In the communities in question – Fairbanks Ranch, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, South Carlsbad, and Encinitas – the median household income ranges from $138,078 to $200,000, among the highest in the state, according to the most recent census data.

Is This Happening Nationwide?

The scenario most likely isn’t limited to some of Southern California’s wealthiest enclaves. A California DSS spokesperson tells RCP that 854 schools in the state fit into the same federal school lunch category as the two schools in North County San Diego where all students received the cards – Torrey Pines High School and La Costa Canyon High School. (Torrey Pines was ranked one of the best high schools in the nation by Newsweek magazine in 2015 and has 2,479 students, and La Costa Canyon High School, another top-rated secondary institution, has 1,600 students.)