Montana Food Bank Network, others, urge support for federal money for food for children

By: - April 17, 2023 7:10 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

The Montana Food Bank Network is again asking the Gianforte Administration to participate in a federal program that has helped provide food for children and families since the pandemic — to the tune of an estimated $27 million last year, according to the Network.

This year, federal guidelines mean less money for Montana, but a letter from the network urged Gov. Greg Gianforte and Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Charlie Brereton to secure the funds for children through the federal Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, or P-EBT.

“If Montana does not participate in the P-EBT program this school year and summer, our state is poised to leave over $10 million in federal food assistance for children on the table,” said the April 10 letter. “This is not only money that can provide nutrition to children, but federal dollars that would be infused into Montana’s economy.”

In 2022, after public outcry, the state health department reversed course and submitted a plan to receive the federal dollars, which the state estimated would help 17,000 children ages 0 to 6 years old who were eligible for SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

A state health department official had initially argued the program would be too burdensome to manage, but Adam Meier, former director of DPHHS, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture heard concerns and ensured the program was flexible.

As a result, the state administered more than $27 million in P-EBT, according to the Montana Food Bank Network.

Earlier this month, the network and 40 other organizations, including food banks, other nonprofits, churches, the ACLU of Montana and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, signed onto the letter asking Montana to participate again.

The letter thanked Republican Gianforte and Brereton for implementing P-EBT and participating, but it also said the state will miss out on benefits if it doesn’t soon submit a plan to the USDA. And, it said the funds are much needed.

“P-EBT has been crucial to Montana families over the last several years,” the letter said. “As the pandemic continues to impact the cost of living and in particular, the cost of food, P-EBT plays a vital role in helping families with children afford groceries.

“Inflation, housing prices, and challenges accessing childcare are making it difficult for many Montana families to afford enough food each month.”

In a short email Monday, Health Department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said the agency has received the letter and is reviewing the request.

The letter said the clock is ticking on creating a plan because federal guidance indicates all P-EBT benefits must be issued by Sept. 30, 2023. However, it also said the USDA is streamlining the process by allowing submissions of plans used in the prior school year.

“The hard work of the Department to provide P-EBT benefits in previous years 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.”

This year, the Montana Legislature rejected at least a couple of proposals to support food for school children and families. Sponsored by Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, House Bill 863 would have paid for lunches for all school children; it was tabled in committee.

On the House floor last month, Rep. Jennifer Lynch, D-Butte, proposed an amendment she said would direct $1 million of federal money toward food banks, but it didn’t pass.

In a phone call, Wren Greaney, with the Montana Food Bank Network, said the organization has not heard a response from the state to its letter.

Greaney said states can have a program for students K-12 or children 0 to 6 years old or both, and last year, Montana had a program for both groups during the summer, and for the younger children during the school year.

“It’s time to get up and moving on a plan if they’re to create a plan because it does take some time to get that up and administered,” Greaney said.

Unlike some proposals in the legislature, P-EBT doesn’t require the state to kick in its own funds, according to the Montana Food Bank Network.

However, Greaney also said the program will end after summer 2023. A different and similar federal program will replace it, but it will be available only for the summer, and it will not replace school lunch programs, according to the Montana Food Bank Network.

P-EBT Letter 2023

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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.