Montana DPHHS is still in the food assistance program to combat epidemics

Helena — Two months after Montana leaders said they would not continue with the federal program to provide food assistance to children during the COVID-19 pandemic, they changed tack and announced Friday that they would remain in the program after all.

Adam Meyer, director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said during a legislative committee hearing that the federal government has added more flexibility to the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, or P-EBT. He said that gave the state a way to join with a lower administrative burden.

“I am really proud of our team — Jane Hermanson and his team — for finding a workaround and working with the USDA to find the resilience to make this available to our state,” Mayer said.

The USDA launched P-EBT in 2020. It works similarly to existing SNAP benefits. Eligible children receive benefits that are charged to the card that can be used to purchase food.

During the school year, the program is open to students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, but who have not been able to access them because their schools are closed or are out due to COVID. In the summer, though, P-EBT benefits are available to all children who qualify for school meal assistance—in Montana, which is estimated to be more than 97,000 in 2021.

Federal rules state that a state must participate in the P-EBT program during the school year in order to be eligible to use it during the summer.

After participating for two academic years, DPHHS leaders said in March that it did not make sense to extend their participation in P-EBT. They said fewer students were eligible, as most schools remained open. Additionally, continuing the program this year would have required the identification of each eligible individual student and the exact dates they were eligible for COVID-related absences. This will lead to more administrative work, both for the state and for school districts.

Groups like the Montana Food Bank Network have expressed disappointment with the decision, saying that P-EBT has become a “change agent” for families in need — especially during the summer, and especially as food prices continue to rise.

This time around, Meyer said, DPHHS only applied for P-EBT for children under 6 years old, which limited the administrative work required. In a statement, DPHHS estimates that approximately 17,000 children will be eligible for compensation of $33 per month for the period from September to December 2021. They said they will have more information soon about what will be available during the summer.

Supporters said they were grateful for the news.

“Hundreds of Montana residents have stepped forward, shared their stories, and made their voices heard,” said Jackie Siemens of the Montana Center on Budget and Policy. “We are grateful to the state for reversing its course and ensuring that 97,500 children across the state received food support this summer.”

“Montana residents are struggling with rising food costs and other living expenses, and some of our food storage partners are seeing record levels of needs,” said Rain Greene, advocacy coordinator for the Montana Food Bank Network. “By managing P-EBT, DPHHS is taking a vital step toward mitigating the prohibitive cost of groceries, for families struggling to make ends meet. We appreciate the hard work the department has put into this and their willingness to explore different options and find a solution that fits Montana.”

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