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State submits plan for pandemic food assistance program

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Schools Stay Closed

Rattlesnake Elementary Principal Pam Wright walks through the empty hallways of the school in May 2020.

Update: A quote from the Montana Budget & Policy Center has been removed from this article after the organization learned federal food assistance funds will not be available for the next school year.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services on Friday announced it has submitted a plan for federal approval to continue a children's food assistance program. 

Earlier this year, advocates urged Montana officials to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Pandemic Electronic Transfer benefits (P-EBT) to keep the program running in summer 2022 for eligible children. The program, created in 2020, provides nutrition benefits to families who lost access to free or reduced-cost school meals due to reduced school days or closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The state health department previously cited a drop in need, as well as administrative workload, in opting against submitting a plan for the funding, Montana Public Radio previously reported. Montana DPHHS Director Adam Meier said in a press release Friday that flexibilities at the federal level allowed the department to resubmit a plan to cover the 2021-2022 school year. 

The department had previously submitted plans and received funding for the 2020-2021 school year, as well as the 2021 summer. The department said in Friday's press release it administered $66 million between March 2020 and August 2021.

By applying for the 2021-2022 school year, Montana can apply for the coming summer. The state health department anticipates that summer 2022 benefits will be available to children ages 0-17.

If approved, the latest round of funding will be available to families with children under age 6 who participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, from September 2021 to May 2022. The state health department estimated Friday 17,000 children will be eligible for the $33 per month benefit for costs between September and December 2021. The school-year benefit amount for January to May this year has yet to be determined, DPHHS said in a press release Friday.

“We’re pleased that federal requirements now include flexibilities that will make it practical for DPHHS to effectively offer P-EBT in Montana for the current school year and over the summer,” Meier said. “This program has been a valuable resource for thousands of Montana families in helping to supplement their food budgets, in a time when grocery costs continue to rise.”

The Montana Budget and Policy Center was among 60 organizations that cosigned a letter from the Montana Food Bank Network to Meier and Gov. Greg Gianforte in March urging them to continue using the program. 

“Hundreds of Montanans stepped up, shared their stories, and made their voices heard,” said Jackie Semmens with the Montana Budget & Policy Center. Semmens said 97,500 children were eligible for the program in 2021 and she assumes a similar number of children will be eligible in the coming summer.

In its release, DPHHS said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet indicated if the funds will be made available for the 2022-2023 school year. 

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