OPI to run summer meals program for children; Dems call on gov to accept $10M for food

By: - June 7, 2023 4:45 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

The Office of Public Instruction will administer a nutritious food program this summer that last year meant nearly $2.8 million of federal money in meals and snacks for children, according to the agency.

“Last year, there were 748 meals/snacks served by 101 sponsors at 273 sites,” wrote OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary in an email.

It’s called the Summer Food Service Program. However, it is different than a program that Montana recently turned down that would have also boosted food assistance for hungry children during the summer.

Food banks and other organizations that feed children and families report a growing need, but last week, the Department of Public Health and Human Services said it would decline roughly $10 million in federal money for food, citing administrative burdens.

Tuesday, Montana Democrats chastised Gov. Greg Gianforte for having “dragged his feet” last year in accepting federal Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program dollars and called on him to accept this year’s funds — although a Health Department spokesperson said the agency wasn’t going to apply.

“What is the governor waiting for?” said Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, in an email. “He’s leaving $10 million in federal funding on the table and letting Montana kids go hungry.”

She said Montana families deserve to know the reason. The Montana Food Bank Network and 40 other groups have called on the governor to pursue the money, which was expected to support an estimated 73,000 children.

Last week, the Health Department said the processes and rules for supervising the program were difficult and posed “a significant administrative burden for what was meant to be a temporary program.” Through the program, eligible children receive benefits through a card, like a debit card, to purchase food.

In an email, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it’s committed to working with states to provide technical assistance should they choose to receive Pandemic-EBT and need support. Nutrition is a stated priority for the federal agency.

“The most effective way to improve the health of our nation is to help children thrive early in life and set them up for life-long health,” the USDA said in the email. “USDA nutrition assistance programs play an important role in building a brighter, healthier future for America’s children.”

The deadline for states to submit a new plan for P-EBT is July 14, the USDA said. The public health emergency declaration from the pandemic officially expired last month, and the deadline to distribute P-EBT benefits is Sept. 30.

However, the USDA also said it is working to be as flexible as possible because quickly distributing the benefits may be difficult. It said challenges include a decreased amount of time to identify eligible children, conduct quality control, address errors and produce and mail EBT cards by Sept. 30.

“In response, FNS has worked with counsel from USDA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to clarify legal requirements and to secure as much flexibility for states as possible … ,” the USDA said.

“FNS will be able to honor retroactive issuance of P-EBT benefits after Sept. 30. This flexibility is not unlimited and FNS is asking states to complete all benefit issuance no later than Dec. 31.”

The USDA also said it will work with states on a case-by-case basis to address the payment of claims or the correction of errors beyond Dec. 31. It said benefits will continue to occur through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as it has throughout the P-EBT.

“Our programs do more than provide food to kids,” the USDA said. “They teach children about the importance of nutrition, help them develop healthy habits, and connect them and their families with other important resources.“ 

Meanwhile, the Summer Food Service Program OPI will administer is open to all children and teens 18 years old or younger, according to O’Leary. He said the program is 100% funded by the USDA, and it pays for a free meal or snack for youth at sites across the state, some of which allow adults to purchase meals, too.

The program was first started out of a pilot in 1968 and became a standalone in 1975, OPI said, pointing to USDA records.

An OPI report from last school year discusses school nutrition programs in general, including a special milk program, breakfast program, and fresh fruit and vegetable initiative.

From the 2021 school year to 2022, the breakfast program served 18% more meals, the report said. However, it served more meals in 2022, roughly 8 million in all compared to roughly 6 million in the years before the pandemic.

A school lunch program saw a 26% percent increase in 2022 compared to the 2021 school year, the report said. Again, the total in 2022 is greater than it was prior to the pandemic, more than 14 million meals compared to roughly 13 million in 2018 and close to the same in 2019.

O’Leary attributed the increases to the availability of free meals. He said OPI requested a waiver that meant more children and families could be served during the 2022 school year.

“Because meals were at no cost, apparently more children participated in the meal programs,” O’Leary said in an email.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.