Tuesday, June 25, 2024

State reverses course on federal food assistance

by ALEX SAKARIASSEN Montana Free Press
| May 17, 2022 12:00 AM

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services announced Friday that it is seeking another round of pandemic-era food assistance funding from the federal government, reversing a decision the agency made earlier this spring to halt participation in the program.

As DPHHS Director Adam Meier informed state lawmakers in Helena Friday, the agency submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) Program funds for all children under 6 in Montana who participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program between September 2021 and May 2022. In a news release accompanying Meier’s announcement, DPHHS estimated that roughly 17,000 children in the state will be eligible for a benefit of $33 per month through December 2021 if Montana’s plan is approved. The agency added that the per-month benefit from January to May 2022 has yet to be determined.

Approval of the 2021-22 school year plan would also make Montana eligible to offer P-EBT benefits to all eligible children under 18 through the coming summer, and DPHHS plans to submit a separate plan for that summer funding in this month. Meier told lawmakers that DPHHS has yet to determine a final total for the amount of benefits Montanans would receive.

The department estimates that it issued more than $66 million in P-EBT funds to Montanans from the start of the program in March 2020 through August 2021.

Lorianne Burhop, chief policy officer for the nonprofit Montana Food Bank Network, told Montana Free Press her organization is “thrilled” by Friday’s announcement. When DPHHS informed the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee in March that it did not intend to submit a P-EBT plan for the current school year, the food bank network was among roughly 60 organizations that signed a letter urging the agency to reverse course. Critics of the earlier decision emphasized the important role the program has played in helping low-income students and families obtain food during the pandemic, and repeatedly stated that by not submitting a plan, Montana was poised to let $37 million in federal food assistance go to waste.

“As food prices and other costs of living have been rising, families are continuing to really struggle to make ends meet,” Burhop said. “This is a federally funded program that was on the table for our state to take advantage of, and when the initial word came out that the state was not planning to pursue these funds, we were super concerned.”

In the months since, MFBN and others have continued to press the issue with agency leaders and elected officials. Burhop said she believes that pressure helped to nudge DPHHS in the direction it ultimately took this week.

“I think the voice of parents and food pantries and all of the other partners across the state who have been weighing in over the last few months absolutely made a difference,” she said. “They really helped to raise the importance of this program and to share the difference that it’s been making for families.”

The Montana Budget and Policy Center, another signatory to the March letter calling for a P-EBT plan, echoed Burhop’s sentiment Friday.

“Hundreds of Montanans stepped up, shared their stories and made their voices heard,” Jackie Semmens, a policy analyst at the center, said in an emailed statement. “We’re grateful the state is reversing course and ensuring 97,500 children across the state will be able to access food supports through the summer.”

DPHHS attributed its initial hesitancy to continue P-EBT participation to the administrative burdens of the program. Despite the agency’s ultimate decision to submit a plan, Meier maintained that position in speaking to members of the interim Children, Families, Health and Human Services Committee Friday. The federal government did work with states to alleviate some of the burden, he explained, but pursuing benefits for all eligible school children would have required DPHHS to obtain detailed attendance records from every public school across Montana. That, Meier continued, was the reason DPHHS crafted its plan the way it did.

“We could essentially enroll ourselves into the P-EBT program for children under 6 because there was not the same administrative burden that we would have had had we gone through every single school asking for every single attendance record and every single reason,” Meier said.

The USDA has not yet announced whether the P-EBT program will continue during the next school year — a decision that will depend heavily on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic as the fall semester approaches.

The Helena-based Montana Free Press is a nonprofit newsroom. To see the original story, click here.