Montana leaders don't plan to continue in federal food assistance program

Posted at 6:04 PM, Mar 18, 2022

HELENA — State leaders say it no longer makes sense to participate in a federal program intended to provide food assistance for kids who weren’t in school because of COVID-19. However, some advocates say they’re concerned about what that’s going to mean for families in need this summer.

In 2020, the federal government launched the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, program. After taking part for two school years, leaders with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services say they don’t plan to extend their participation. They cited fewer students using the program and a growing administrative burden to implement it.

P-EBT 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 – estimated at more than 97,000 in 2021.

Lorianne Burhop, chief policy officer for the Montana Food Bank Network, says the program has been a big help.

“The availability of P-EBT was really a game-changer for addressing child hunger during the summer months,” she said. “We’ve heard from families that P-EBT made the difference between whether they can afford to pay rent and bills and still have enough money to afford groceries for their kids.”

The issue, however, is that federal rules say a state can only participate in P-EBT during the summer if they used it during the previous school year. DPHHS leaders say they decided not to pursue the next round of funding because it’s gotten increasingly difficult to manager the program and it’s serving fewer students.

DPHHS estimates the number of students eligible for P-EBT fell by half from 2020, when schools across the state were in remote learning, to 2021, when closures were generally shorter and more sporadic. They expected the number would be significantly lower this year, as most schools have remained open.

Because of fewer school-wide closures, DPHHS says continuing the P-EBT 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.

“That would pull staff away from other parts of the division to try to do this very, very manual process,” said DPHHS director Adam Meier, speaking before a legislative committee on Tuesday. “At the same time, there has been increases in the regular EBT, schools are providing free school lunches across the state, so we are seeing more availability of this.”

“The administrative lift to do it, we are just not resourced for properly – and neither, frankly, are many of the schools that we would have to rely on to get the data,” he added.

A DPHHS spokesperson told MTN that, if the federal government gave states the option to apply just for summer assistance, the department would take another look at it.

In a filing with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Montana leaders estimated they could provide up to $15.3 million in benefits for more than 22,000 students during the 2020-2021 school year. In a second document, they said they could distribute more than $36 million to the roughly 97,000 students eligible the following summer.

Meier said during Tuesday’s committee hearing that, because of the changes in implementing the program, he doubted they would have qualified for nearly that much this year.

It appears Montana is not alone in its decision. So far, only 19 states have been approved to operate a P-EBT program for this year.

Still, the Food Bank Network and other groups expressed disappointment in DPHHS’ decision not to continue with the program. Burhop acknowledged the burden the program requires and the difficult position the federal government created for Montana.

“I think there are a lot of administrative challenges that came from the federal level with this program – that were outside of the state’s control and made things harder on states than perhaps they could have been,” she said. “Definitely some of that falls at the federal level.”

However, she’s still concerned about what will happen to families this summer if P-EBT is not extended.

“Now we’re heading into summer 2022, food prices are higher, the cost of living is higher,” she said. “That need for support, for families to afford adequate groceries is definitely still there. The need for this program has not gone away in our state.”