Nonprofit, 60 partners: Montana might leave $36.6M to feed children untapped

By: - March 14, 2022 7:10 pm

Grocery cart filled with nutritious fruits and vegetables. (Photo by greggavedon via Flickr/CC BY ND-2.0)

The State of Montana may be leaving $36.6 million for hungry children on the table — for summer 2022 alone — if it does not submit a plan to receive another round of Pandemic EBT benefits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a March 11 letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte and state Health Department Director Adam Meier.

“This is not only money that can provide nutrition to children, but federal dollars that would be infused into Montana’s state economy,” said the letter from the Montana Food Bank Network signed by 60 organizations.

Tuesday, the legislative Education Interim Committee heard an update on the Pandemic EBT program from a Department of Public Health and Human Services division administrator who said Montana has opted against submitting a plan for the 2021-22 school year. The presentation offered scant details, but at least one lawmaker urged the agency to make feeding children a priority and apply for the funds.

Gene Hermanson, head of the Human and Community Services division, said schools have continued to reopen, and children can access food at school. He said the need for funds has been dropping dramatically, as much as 50 percent from fall 2020 to spring 2021, as the pandemic wanes.

“We know it has continued to decline drastically this school year,” Hermanson said.

The Pandemic EBT program provides a purchasing card families can use to buy food. Hermanson said the program is burdensome to administer, including for local school districts, and reporting requirements are only growing, but on the other hand, SNAP benefits have increased and are helping families (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), so the state is opting out of P-EBT.

A fact sheet from the Food Bank Network notes Montana has taken advantage of the Pandemic EBT program since March 2020 and has provided $67 million in benefits to children. The fact sheet notes the funds can be spent at more than 750 SNAP retailers in the state including many farmers markets, and that the program reduced food insufficiency among SNAP households by 28 percent, citing a Brookings Institute study.

Following the presentation, Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, said she understood the program took a lot of time to manage, and she appreciated the burden it placed on school districts. However, she said if the state had been handling it for two years, she believed it could continue to do so in order to help feed children.

“It’s a way of getting food to kids that are food insecure,” Funk said. “And without having something to replace it, the number of kids that needs to be fed has not been reduced.”

The letter from the Food Bank Network said Montana is one of only a handful of states that has not committed to providing the benefits for the 2021-2022 school year. It also said if the state misses out this year, it will mean children also miss out on funds this summer.

“The hard work of the Department to provide P-EBT benefits for the spring of 2020, the school year of 2020-2021 and summer of 2021 has been the difference between hunger and nourishment for struggling families across Montana,” the letter said. “They still need your help in order to receive much needed benefits for this school year and the summer.”

The Health Department could not be reached for comment via email late Monday afternoon on whether it might reverse course. A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office also could not be reached for comment via an email sent late Monday afternoon.

PEBT letter

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.