Montana DPHHS changing course, remaining in pandemic food assistance program

Posted at 5:15 PM, May 13, 2022

HELENA — Two months after Montana leaders said they wouldn’t continue in a federal program to provide food assistance for kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, they changed course and announced Friday that they will be remaining in the program after all.

Adam Meier, director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said during a legislative committee hearing that the federal government had added more flexibility in the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, program. He said that gave the state a way to rejoin with less administrative burden.

“I’m really proud of our team – Gene Hermanson and team – for finding a workaround and working with USDA to find flexibility to make this available to our state,” said Meier.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched P-EBT in 2020. It works similarly to existing SNAP benefits. Eligible kids receive benefits loaded onto a card that can be used to buy food.

During the school year, the program is open to students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, but who couldn’t access them because their schools were closed or they were out due to COVID. In the summer, though, P-EBT benefits are available to all kids eligible for school meal assistance – in Montana, estimated at more than 97,000 in 2021.

Federal rules say a state must participate in P-EBT during the school year to be eligible to use it during the summer.

After taking part for two school years, DPHHS leaders said in March it didn’t make sense to extend their participation in P-EBT. They said fewer students would have been eligible, as most schools have remained open. In addition, continuing the program this year would have required identifying each individual student who qualifies and the specific dates they were eligible for payments because of a COVID-related absence. That would lead to much more administrative work, both for the state and for school districts.

Groups like the Montana Food Bank Network expressed disappointment in the decision, saying P-EBT had become a “game-changer” for needy families – especially during the summer, and especially as food prices continue to increase.

Meier said this time, DPHHS applied for P-EBT only for children under age 6, which limited the administrative work required. In a statement, DPHHS estimates nearly 17,000 children will be eligible for a $33 per month benefit for the period from September to December 2021. They said they’ll have more information soon on what will be available during the summer.

Advocates said they’re grateful for the news.

“Hundreds of Montanans stepped up, shared their stories, and made their voices heard,” said Jackie Semmens with the Montana Budget & Policy Center. “We’re grateful the state is reversing course and ensuring 97,500 children across the state will be able to access food supports this summer.”

“Montanans are experiencing rising costs of food and other living expenses, and some of our food pantry partners are seeing record levels of need,” said Wren Greaney, advocacy coordinator for the Montana Food Bank Network. “By administering P-EBT, DPHHS is taking a vital step toward mitigating the burdensome cost of groceries, for families who are struggling to make ends meet. We appreciate the hard work of the department to make this happen and their willingness to explore various options and find a solution that will work for Montana.”