Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) After not accepting similar funds to feed hungry kids last summer, the state of Montana has changed course, and about 170,000 kids will have a better chance at full stomachs this upcoming summer in the Treasure State.

Montana is opting to participate in the federal Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT) program beginning in June 2024, after Democrats decried the state’s decision to not accept similar funds this past summer.

The state previously opted not to apply for $10 million through the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program in July, with the Department of Public Health and Human Services citing a “significant administrative burden for what was meant to be a temporary program,” a spokesperson previously told the Daily Montanan.

But DPHHS announced Thursday a partnership with the Office of Public Instruction to offer meals to school-aged children in the summer months.

Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, who spoke at a rally on the Capitol urging the state to accept the P-EBT funds over the summer, said in a statement the decision Thursday was long overdue.

“It’s well past time the Governor stood up for hungry kids in our state, especially after rejecting ten million dollars last summer that would have fed 50,000 children in communities all across the state,” Smith said. “Montana Democrats and folks in our communities have urged this administration to stop playing political games on the backs of Montana kids. We are heartened that they finally listened.”

Last summer, OPI ran a similar program with U.S. Department of Agriculture funds called the Summer Food Service Program that provided food for school kids at certain sites, but Democrats at the rally in July said it was not enough.

The Summer EBT program provides funds accepted at grocery stores to low-income families with school-aged children when schools are closed for the summer. Beginning in summer 2024, families will receive $40 per eligible child during the summer months of June, July, and August, according to the DPHHS announcement.

USDA research found the program decreased one-third the number of kids with low food security and supports healthier diets, the department said.

“The Summer EBT program is another tool that families can use when school doors are closed,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen in a statement. “I look forward to this continued partnership with DPHHS as our agencies have successfully implemented similar programs such as Medicaid Direct Certification.”

DPHHS said it notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service of the state’s desire to participate, and will have until Feb. 15 to submit a program management plan.