Earlier this year, Montana leaders announced they had decided not to continue in a pandemic-era program that would have brought in federal money to provide food assistance for kids this summer. On Monday, speakers at a rally at the State Capitol urged the Gianforte administration to reconsider the decision.
“We can do better!” said Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula.
Democratic lawmakers and other activists called on the state to extend its participation in the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, program for summer 2023. Supporters said it could provide several million dollars to help families in need buy food. The state has participated in the program in some form for the last three years.
P-EBT launched in 2020, during the COVID pandemic. It works similarly to existing SNAP benefits, as eligible kids receive benefits loaded onto a card that can be used to purchase food at grocery stores.
The program, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, previously required states to participate for an entire school year. This year, however, the department is allowing states to participate only during the summer. In that case, benefits would be available to any child eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services told MTN last month that P-EBT was meant as a temporary response to the pandemic, and it didn’t make sense to continue in it. Leaders said participating would create an administrative burden, as staff members would have to identify and issue benefits to all eligible families – including those not currently known to the department. They said the DPHHS staff who would need to do that work are also busy working on redetermining Medicaid eligibility after the end of the public health emergency.
Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, was a deputy director with DPHHS under the previous administration, when the P-EBT program began. She told MTN they found a way to work with USDA to deal with the administrative challenges successfully.
“We knew it was difficult going into it because of the data, and we figured it out,” she said. “We worked with USDA, we went up the chain, we figured out a creative way to meet their data requirements. And the USDA was flexible the same way that they are indicating they're flexible on these funds.”
Smith was one of several speakers at Monday’s event who called on Gov. Greg Gianforte to talk to USDA to see if there are ways to make the program work for this year.
Ryan Busse, an author and activist, referred to Montana’s reputation as the “Last Best Place.”
“There is not one ‘best’ thing about refusing to feed hungry kids,” he said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Gianforte’s office responded to the rally.
“Today's partisan event featured politicians who are promoting the leftist agenda and who have made it clear they want Montana to cling to a forever COVID state of emergency,” they said. “The Pandemic EBT program was set up as a temporary measure during the pandemic, and leaders, from the president to local officials, acknowledge the public health emergency is over. The state has and will continue to effectively administer programs targeted to Montana children who face food insecurity, including the Summer Food Service Program.”
DPHHS leaders told MTN last month that about $13 million in previously awarded P-EBT benefits remain unspent – including about $7 million where the card was closed because benefits hadn’t been used within nine months of being issued. They said some families returned the benefits because they didn’t need them or didn’t understand why they received them.
Smith pushed back against that as a justification for not extending the program.
“We've heard today from the YWCA that this money has meant a lot to single parents, including single mothers, that they see it come onto their P-EBT card,” she said. “These systems already exist, right? These P-EBT cards that people can use at 700 grocery stores and stores across the state. And so what I want to know is how many kids were served.”
The Montana Budget and Policy Center estimated last month that 50,000 Montana kids would qualify for summer meal assistance this year, each receiving $120.
According to a USDA website, 44 states and territories have been approved to operate a P-EBT program for summer 2023. Montana is one of ten states not included on that list, along with Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Texas. The website says states have until July 14 – this Friday – to submit a plan for this year.
A USDA spokesperson released a statement Monday in response to an inquiry from MTN.
“Child food insecurity is highest during the summer months when kids lose access to school meals,” they said. “USDA is committed to ensuring that all children have access to the healthy food they need to thrive year-round, and Summer P-EBT is a critical tool in helping to achieve this goal. Last summer, this program reached 35 million children with $13.7 billion in benefits. We are working with states again this summer to ensure low-income families with kids can access these benefits at the grocery store, and so far 44 states and territories have signed up to implement this important program. USDA continues to stand ready to work with the few remaining states that have not yet taken these steps so that together we can ensure millions of children receive the nutrition assistance that helps them thrive and is essential to our nation’s economic health and security.”