Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — Montana leaders say they’ve decided not to participate this year in a program that would have brought in federal money to provide food assistance for kids, citing the administrative hurdles required to implement it.

It’s a disappointment for advocates who say the program would have been an important help for families over the summer.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) says they opted out of the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program for the 2022-23 school year and for summer 2023.

The state had participated in the program in some form for the last three years.

P-EBT launched in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It works similarly to existing SNAP benefits, as eligible kids receive benefits loaded onto a card that can be used to buy food at grocery stores.

During the school year, the program, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was 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-19.

In the summer, though, P-EBT benefits were available to all kids eligible for school meal assistance.

“We know that summer hunger is a very big issue for thousands of Montana children, and it has been for a very long time,” said Jackie Semmens, a policy analyst with the Montana Budget and Policy Center, one of the advocacy groups that called on DPHHS to continue with P-EBT. “The last few years is the first time that the USDA, the federal government, has really addressed the issue of summer hunger in such an effective way.”

Semmens said P-EBT has already brought millions of dollars in assistance into the state. She estimated about 50,000 Montana kids would qualify for summer meal assistance this year, each receiving $120.

In a statement to MTN, DPHHS leaders said P-EBT was primarily intended as a response to the pandemic, and with the national COVID-19 state of emergency ending this year and no significant school closures, it didn’t make sense to continue in the program.

“In addition, the reality is the requirements of the P-EBT program are labor intensive for both school districts and DPHHS,” they said. ‘The program does not follow traditional SNAP processes or rules. Instead, it requires manual processes for data integrity, quality control and benefits issuance, which is a significant administrative burden for what was meant to be a temporary program.”

Last year, DPHHS initially said they wouldn’t participate in P-EBT, but they changed course several months later, saying the federal government had allowed them more flexibility in running the program. The state applied for benefits only for children under 6, limiting the administrative work required.

This year, the federal government allowed states to apply for P-EBT only for the summer, instead of requiring a plan for the previous school year as well. A DPHHS spokesperson told MTN that wouldn’t have changed the 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.

DPHHS officials said there’s not an easy way to compare P-EBT usage year to year, but that about $13 million in benefits remain unspent, and that some families returned the benefits because they didn’t need them or didn’t understand why they received them.

Organizations like the Montana Budget and Policy Center and Montana Food Bank Network still urged the state to set up a plan for P-EBT, saying it would reach families more efficiently than other summer meal programs, like those organized by school districts.

“Summer meals are a great option for many families, but there's lots of drawbacks,” said Semmens. “Kids have to be able to get to where the meal program is – and for parents who are working, it's hard to take time out of their day to bring kids to the summer meal program. We know that summer meal programs only reach about a third of kids that free and reduced-price school meals do.”

According to the USDA website, 34 states and three U.S. territories have submitted approved plans to participate in P-EBT this summer.