People worried about Montana losing out on $36.6 million in money for children this summer continue to advocate that the state submit a plan to secure the federal funds for food.
“We’re definitely aware that it’s important to parents,” said Wren Greaney, advocacy coordinator with the Montana Food Bank Network. “We heard from previous rounds of Pandemic EBT that it did make a big difference for them. It did help them make ends meet.”
The Pandemic EBT program provides a purchasing card families can use to buy food, or an electronic benefits transfer card.
In March, a Department of Public Health and Human Services administrator confirmed to the legislative Education Interim Committee that Montana had opted against submitting a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for school year funding, citing a drop in need as the pandemic waned as well as administrative burdens.
In order for Montana to get federal money for the summer, estimated at $36.6 million, the state must submit a plan for the school year, said a March letter from 60 organizations including the Montana Food Bank Network. But at the meeting last month, the Health Department administrator said the need had dropped as much as 50 percent from fall 2020 to spring 2021.
This school year, the drop has “undoubtedly” continued due to continued school re-openings, and the number of eligible children would be less than the previous two years, said Health Department spokesperson Jon Ebelt in an email. Ebelt also said that if the rules change at the federal level, Montana would reconsider its position on not applying for the money.
“Should the Biden Administration provide states with P-EBT flexibility and allow Montana to design a plan that meets its needs, DPHHS will reconsider participating in the program,” Ebelt said in an email this week.
In the meantime, the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center said March 2022 was the busiest month in the organization’s history of 40 years. In 23 days, the nonprofit provided 12,041 services to 4,317 households, and it counted 11 days when staff served more than 200 families, “something we only see two or three times in a month,” said Jessica Allred, interim co-executive director in an email Thursday.
“We hope that the state will do the right thing and continue to support families through these challenging times,” Allred said.
The March 11 letter from the Montana Food Bank Network and other organizations went to to Gov. Greg Gianforte and Health Department Director Adam Meier. It said the money the state might be passing up would provide nutrition to children and contribute to the state’s economy.
This week, Greaney said she knows families have continued to contact the Governor’s Office and the Health Department to advocate for the funds. She also said a variety of options exist for simplifying any plan the state submits, or reduce the administrative burden, and the clock is ticking.
“If the state doesn’t create a plan for the school year, they will not be able to issue the benefits for summer,” Greaney said. “So that’s really a big concern.”
In an email, the Health Department’s Ebelt said the program was started for a specific purpose, and the state has made its decision after evaluating the situation in Montana.
“It’s important to note that P-EBT was established to ensure access to the equivalent of school meals when the pandemic forced school closures,” Ebelt said in an email. “In making the decision to not pursue this latest round of P-EBT, we looked at the current situation in Montana balanced against the significant administrative burden to operate the P-EBT program.
“Most Montana schools remained open during the pandemic with some children in and out of the classroom for short periods of time.”
Ebelt also pointed to other programs run through the Health Department that support families, such as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which serves 90,000 Montanans each month and saw a 25 percent increase in benefits in October 2021; The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides free emergency food assistance to low income Montanans; and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, which provides USDA Foods to families on Indian reservations who are income eligible.
He pointed to programs the Montana Office of Public Instruction runs as well, such as free school meals to all students during the school year, and the Summer Food Service Program, which offers free nutritious meals and snacks to children throughout the summer.
At the Missoula Food Bank, Allred said inflation and fuel prices are starting to put pressure on families, and the nonprofit was “atypically” busy at least a couple of weeks in March. She also said one third of the services the Food Bank provides goes to children.
As relief hits households, Allred said, fewer families tap into the Food Bank’s emergency help, and the organization can track the relationship between adequate support and family stability. But “when those programs go away, it shows an increase in need for charitable services.”
Children are particularly at risk in the summer, Allred said, and she said some programs and benefits will soon sunset or expire: “We absolutely anticipate that families are approaching a benefits cliff. Some of that they’re already experiencing. And that need for emergency services will increase as those other supports go away.”