Opinion: Connect eligible Montana students and families with food benefits | Columnists

With food prices and the cost of living on the rise, many Montana families face the threat of hunger and food insecurity. The State of Montana currently has the opportunity to connect thousands of families and children in our state to federal food benefits, but is planning to turn down these funds. Unless Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) acts soon, Montana will miss out on an estimated $36.6 million in federal food assistance for more than 97,500 children.

Last week, a diverse group of 60 local food pantries, health organizations, faith groups, and others joined the Montana Food Bank Network in urging DPHHS and Governor Gianforte to allow children to access these needed food benefits.

Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) was established in 2020, in response to school closures that interrupted children’s access to school meals. The program has been a lifeline for thousands of struggling families in our state during this unprecedented time. In addition, P-EBT funds are supporting local economies, as families spend their benefits at grocery stores and participating farmers markets across Montana.

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P-EBT has been crucial to Montana families over the past two years. Montana DPHHS issued benefits to all eligible students in each of the previous rounds that P-EBT was available, and to children from SNAP households under the age of six. Many families have relied on these benefits during times when their child’s school was closed or they had to quarantine due to COVID, preventing them from accessing school meal programs. Beginning in summer 2021, P-EBT expanded to reach children during the summer months. Child hunger often spikes during the summer, when kids lose access to free and reduced-price meals at school. Summer Meal Programs are vital in helping fill this gap but reach only a small portion of eligible children due to long distances to meal sites, lack of transportation, parents’ work schedules, and other access challenges. P-EBT works differently: it puts grocery dollars directly in the hands of all eligible families, effectively reducing child food insecurity.

Montana is currently poised to miss out on P-EBT benefits that would not only help students during the current school year, but that would provide nutrition assistance to an estimated 97,500 children in the summer of 2022.

Montana is one of only a handful of states that has not committed to providing these grocery benefits to eligible children for school year 2021-2022, and in turn summer 2022. Most states — at least 34 in total — including Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Tennessee, already have plans in place for this school year, or are actively working on their plans.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the difficulties that struggling families face, particularly in rural states like Montana, when they lose access to school meals. Providing school year benefits will not only serve students who have missed school due to COVID, but it will also allow the state to reach all students eligible for free and reduced-price school meals with P-EBT benefits during the summer months of 2022.

We are urging Governor Gianforte and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to submit a plan to USDA to connect eligible Montana students and families with food benefits for school year 2021-2022 and summer 2022. The hard work of DPHHS to provide P-EBT benefits for spring 2020, school year 2020-2021, and summer 2021 has been the difference between hunger and nourishment for struggling families across Montana. They still need these benefits for this school year and summer.

Lorianne Burhop is Chief Policy Officer at Montana Food Bank Network (mfbn.org)

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