Wednesday, July 24, 2024

State declines millions in federal food assistance for children as food banks see soaring need

by KEILA SZPALLER, Daily Montanan
| June 7, 2023 1:00 AM

Under the Gianforte administration, Montana is opting out of $10 million of federal money that would have paid for children’s meals this year, according to an estimate from the Montana Food Bank Network.

Citing administrative burdens, a Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesperson said in an email Tuesday the state will not participate in the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, or P-EBT — a program meant to be temporary — for the 2022-23 school year or summer.

The decision brings the total amount of dollars to address hunger the state has left on the table to more than $135 million since 2021, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

“What I’ve gathered from the state is that they don’t see the need for P-EBT,” said Jackie Semmens, with the Budget and Policy Center. “And as a parent, I’m getting emails every week from my school saying they’re doing a food drive, they’re doing a coin drive, to assist families over the summer.

“The need is very real. There are kids who are not sure where their meals are going to come from this summer.”

The decision also comes as at least one food bank, the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center, experienced a record daily high of individuals coming through — 428 on Tuesday compared the last record of 390, which the nonprofit hit one day last month, said executive director Amy Allison Thompson on Wednesday.

She said 30% of the people the organization serves are children; one year ago, the food bank served 3,500 households a month, and it’s now serving 4,500 a month.

“This decision means that as a state, we are leaving over $10 million in federal food assistance for children on the table,” Thompson said. “So we are extremely concerned about that, especially because of what we’re seeing here at the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center.”

Congress created P-EBT in March 2020 to help families whose children would have received free or reduced-price meals at school if the pandemic had not struck, and all 50 states used the program, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. The national organization said it reached as many as 12.9 million children.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lists 35 states, Puerto Rico, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands as having approved plans to help school children receive meals this summer.

Montana has received $94 million in P-EBT benefits since 2020, according to the Budget and Policy Center. But the program isn’t easy to administer, according to the Health Department.

“The reality is the requirements of the P-EBT program are labor intensive for both school districts and DPHHS,” said agency spokesperson Jon Ebelt in the email. “The program does not follow traditional SNAP processes or rules. Instead, it requires manual processes for data integrity, quality control and benefits issuance, which is a significant administrative burden for what was meant to be a temporary program.”

SNAP is the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Last year, after public outcry, the Health Department reversed course and applied for the funds for the 2021-22 school year, and former agency director Adam Meier then praised the federal government for being flexible with requirements.

The application made the state eligible for summer support as well, and Montana received some $27 million last year, according to an earlier estimate from the Food Bank Network.

“This program has been a valuable resource for thousands of Montana families in helping to supplement their food budgets, in a time when grocery costs continue to rise,” said Meier in a May 2022 update from the Health Department about the program.

The Health Department lists 96 schools or districts that participated last summer.

In Montana, the program would have helped 73,000 students this summer, when schools and their cafeterias are generally closed and families have a more difficult time making sure their children get enough to eat, according to the Budget and Policy Center.

Rob Watson, with School Administrators of Montana, said he spoke with a couple of administrators about the program, and he didn’t get the impression from them it was a lot of extra work, at least during the summer, a less busy time.

He said administrators are adamant that during the school year, it’s difficult for kids to learn if they’re hungry. He also said many districts run summer meal programs because children are vulnerable then and don’t have the same access to food through their schools.

“The insecurity happens in the summer,” Watson said.

Bruce Day, executive director for Helena Food Share, said the food bank serves roughly one in five children in the Helena area. Since the pandemic, he said the organization has seen rising need.

Helena Food Share provides roughly 1,200 “Kid Packs” for children each week of the school year, a program that’s specific to youngsters, he said. The packs contain healthy snacks and nutritious, easy-to-prepare meals.

Day said Helena Food Share has seen an increasing number of families seeking assistance as well, 15% to 20% more every month year over year. That’s 1,500 to 1,600 families a month, or roughly 3,000 individuals.

“Since coming out of COVID, we just continue to see the numbers rise,” Day said.

In a blog post this month, Semmens, policy analyst with the Budget and Policy Center, noted the money from P-EBT would have been spent at 750 grocery stores that accept the benefit. She also noted one in eight children in Montana faces food insecurity, or three students in a classroom of 24.

However, the analysis also noted a pattern has emerged in Montana of politicians foregoing food assistance to children.

“Montana ended its additional pandemic assistance before nearly every other state, denying the opportunity for these federal funds to support families during a period of sharply rising food prices,” Semmens said in the post.

In the analysis, she pointed to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s veto of a 2021 bill that would have helped SNAP recipients buy more fruits and vegetables at local farmer’s markets; the state ending a pandemic-related boost to SNAP worth $125 million to communities; the state’s decision not to apply for food assistance for children on free and reduced lunch last school year; and the tabling this legislative session of a bill that would have provided free school meals for students.

“This pattern of denial is having devastating consequences on Montana families,” the blog post said.

Typically, Semmens said the program would split administrative costs so the state and the federal government each would pay half, but currently, the feds are picking up 100% of those costs.

“They could really be getting their systems figured out while there’s full federal funding,” Semmens said.

The Montana Food Bank Network had urged the governor and DPHHS Director Charlie Brereton to apply for the funding, and in an email Wednesday, chief policy officer Lorianne Burhop described the state’s decision as “incredibly disappointing.”

She said there isn’t a deadline to apply, but because all the benefits have to be issued by the end of September, the state is quickly running out of time, even if it did decide to change direction.

“This decision comes at a time when families are hurting, trying to keep up with the cost of housing, childcare, and food,” Burhop said. “The need for this program has not gone away.

“Montana’s food pantries are struggling to provide enough food for the people coming through their doors. The state’s decision to turn down these federal funds is a lost opportunity to help Montana families make ends meet and keep food on the table."

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.

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