Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, speaks at a rally urging Gov. Greg Gianforte to accept $10 million in PEBT funding to help feed Montana children that his administration has this year chosen to decline. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
A handful of Democratic Montana lawmakers and other political affiliates rallied at the state Capitol on Monday, urging Gov. Greg Gianforte and his administration to switch course and opt back into a federal program that would send $10 million to the state to help feed schoolchildren.
States have until July 14 to opt into the federal Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, which the Department of Public Health and Human Services said at the end of May it would decline to pursue citing a “significant administrative burden for what was meant to be a temporary program,” as a spokesperson told the Daily Montanan.
Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula; Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena; YWCA Helena Director Jen Gursky; congressional candidate Kev Hamm; and political adviser and author Ryan Busse spoke on the northern plaza of the Capitol, saying the Republican governor and his administration “can do better” and agree to move forward with the program.
“This doesn’t have to be about partisan politicking; it can just be about simply saying yes,” Gursky told the roughly four dozen people gathered for the rally. “We don’t have to be partisan, and we can say yes to some needs that supersede the political shenanigans that have become very real consequences for our neighbors.”
The program, which 39 other states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories have opted into for the summer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides children benefits through a card to purchase food. The Montana Food Bank Network and dozens of other groups have called on Gianforte to go after the money because they say it would help feed 73,000 children in Montana.
The USDA told the Daily Montanan in June it hopes to work with states to help facilitate the process if states need support, but the state has so far declined to move forward with obtaining the federal money. The deadline to distribute the benefits is Sept. 30, but a USDA spokesperson said it would work with states to issue retroactive benefits after that date.
The P-EBT program was part of the federal government’s COVID-19 response and started in 2020 and helped feed children who would have received free or reduced lunches if their schools were not closed. Since the public health emergency declaration expired in May, the program is ending as well.
Montana received at least $94 million in P-EBT benefits since 2020, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center. DPHHS applied for the funds during the 2021-22 school year after public pressure, and the state received an estimated $27 million last year. DPHHS said 96 schools or districts participated in the program last summer.
A budget amendments report from June notes that the FY2023 budget was amended to establish authority for two administrative grants worth nearly $1.1 million total to help the state with “the administrative burden” of issuing P-EBT benefits to families and children.
Jon Ebelt, a spokesperson for DPHHS, said those grants were used to cover staffing costs for managing the P-EBT program and vendor costs “associated with the increased issuances.”
“There is approximately $100,000 in grant funds remaining, and those funds will be used to cover the vendor costs associated with the monthly vendor fees as people utilize unspent P-EBT benefits,” Ebelt sailed in an emailed statement. “These funds will be used to cover these costs through September 2023.”
Smith, a former deputy director at DPHHS, said she worked with the USDA previously to implement the program and said she was feeling déjà vu at the current situation.
“Here we are again, with assertions of administratively burdensome. This is where you get creative or you get flexible. I actually personally called the USDA a couple of days ago and they told me they are willing to be flexible with states, they are willing to work with states to find a path forward,” she said. “… We call B.S. We call it like it is. It’s not too late to prioritize our kids and find a path forward.”
The Office of Public Instruction is administering a food program for children this summer called the Summer Food Service Program at certain sites across the state paid for with USDA funding, but the group at the Capitol on Monday said it was not enough and that Gianforte’s administration should push forward and request the P-EBT funding as well.
Busse, whom the Montana Free Press reported in late June was considering challenging Gianforte for the governor’s office next year, told the crowd how his wife had run a pop-up camp to serve needy kids in Kalispell and how the food she would serve them was often the only good meal of their days. He said the government choosing to forego money to feed children is “plain evil.”
“We have a governor that has all the time in the world to cheer these divisive politics. He can sign bill after bill after bill making the rich richer and the working people worse off,” Busse said. “But he can’t be bothered to take five minutes and to sign a piece of paper to get money out that’s already allocated to our state because the work Sen. [Jon] Tester has done through the Department of Agriculture.”
O’Brien talked about food insecurity among more than 28,000 Montana children and the food deserts that exist in parts of the state – saying it was wrong that any child or family has to go to bed hungry and urging the governor to take action as the chief executive of the state.
“There is no excuse for declining access to these funds,” O’Brien said. “I am tired of the false rhetoric that our governor actually cares. I know he believes he does, but he needs to be in touch with our families. He needs to understand what’s really going on, and leaving these mouths unfed is not OK anymore.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information from DPHHS about how it spent its P-EBT grant money.
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