Montana can help thousands of low-income students get enough to eat during school closures, but it must act swiftly.
A new program established through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Coronavirus Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), allows states to provide assistance to families with children who would otherwise be receiving free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches if schools were in session. With thousands of parents having lost their jobs or working reduced hours and children across the state out of school, P-EBT can help ensure kids are receiving the nutrition they need.
In Montana, 65,000 children receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Four out of every ten students in Montana public schools receive these meals, and many are at an increased risk of hunger while schools are out of session.
School districts across the state have been providing pick-up meals, an important stop-gap service for those in need, but they are not enough. In February, the NSLP provided over 2 million free and reduced price meals to Montana students. In March, despite school still being in session for the first two weeks of the month, school meal programs provided half a million fewer meals. Many families are unable to make outings multiple times a day for meals, and P-EBT can help make up the difference.
P-EBT benefits can help increase nutrition for children at risk of going hungry. The benefits amount to $114 a month per child. If schools in Montana remain out for the rest of the year, families may receive over $300 in assistance per child.
Enacting P-EBT, however, is not without its challenges. For those families with children who receive free- and reduced-price lunches and are also enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the state can automatically issue benefits through SNAP for these families.
However, there are many who are not already enrolled in SNAP. To reach these children, Montana must find them, but contact information on the NSLP may not be immediately available. The state may need to use data from school districts, Healthy Montana Kids, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), foster care, and other programs to ensure no one slips through the cracks. Outlining a plan to identify students eligible for assistance is a necessary step to get state approval for P-EBT.
While many school districts have voted to close for the rest of the school year, some uncertainty about the weeks ahead remain. Nevertheless, obtaining P-EBT benefits for families should be a priority for Montana. P-EBT benefits can be issued retroactively, helping to ease the unexpected financial difficulty many families have endured over the past month and a half.
So far, Montana has taken several measures to help ease the financial burden of the pandemic. The state has taken action to ensure households will not be kicked off of SNAP in this critical time and has increased the benefit amount for many households. Now, the state should take another step and make kids a priority as well.
Thirty-one states have been approved for P-EBT thus far. Montana has the opportunity to ease the pressure on families and reduce childhood hunger. The state should create a plan to issue P-EBT benefits to eligible households as soon as possible.
MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.