When schools let out, and cafeterias close for the summer, no kid in Montana should be left wondering where their next meal will come from. Unfortunately, this summer, 97,500 kids in Montana risk losing out on a federally funded nutrition assistance program.
P-EBT: The anti-childhood hunger program born during the pandemic
In 2020, when schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress created Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT). P-EBT provided families with students on free and reduced-price lunches food assistance as they could no longer receive school meals.
But school closures have been just one factor that has caused food insecurity among children over the past few years. Rising food prices and supply chain disruptions have caused increases in food insecurity. To combat these issues, P-EBT was extended in 2021 to help students who receive free and reduced-price school lunches during the summer.
Montana has provided additional food assistance through P-EBT since the end of the 2020 school year, including throughout the 2020-2021 school year and the summer of 2021. P-EBT has provided Montana with $67 million in nutrition assistance to families living on low incomes since the beginning of the pandemic. The additional assistance families have received during the pandemic has been successful. P-EBT has reduced food insufficiency among households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by 28 percent, according to the Brookings Institution.
Montana children at risk of losing summer food assistance
P-EBT is a crucial and successful step in addressing childhood food insecurity. Montana, however, has not submitted a school year plan for 2021-2022 to the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. While schools have largely remained open during the school year, the families will not receive assistance this summer if the state does not submit a P-EBT plan for the current school year.
With inflation and rising food costs, Montana families living on low incomes face pressure in the grocery store. This summer, P-EBT would provide $36.6 million in federal assistance to 97,500 children in the state. The need for the program is still high, with tens of thousands of Montana children qualifying for the program. P-EBT would provide each child who qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch $375 in benefits over the summer.
Even before the pandemic, summer meant hunger for many kids. Families see rising grocery costs when kids are home during the day, and summer meal programs cannot reach all those in need. Kids who are hungry over the summer are more likely to experience summer learning loss. This forces schools to spend extra resources helping kids get caught up when the school year rolls around.
Montana families have already lost out on millions in nutrition assistance
Montana families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits already receive significantly less in benefits than nearly every other state. When Governor Gianforte ended the state public health emergency in the summer of 2021, households on SNAP stopped receiving additional food assistance benefits. These additional benefits, known as Emergency Allotments, allowed each household to receive the maximum SNAP benefit for their household size.
Montana is one of only a handful of states that no longer issues Emergency Allotments. In August 2021, the first month Montana stopped issuing this emergency assistance, households received $8.9 million less in SNAP benefits. This resulted in an average loss of $89 per person receiving SNAP.
Montana must act now to get children the help they need
The Department of Public Health and Human Services must submit a P-EBT plan to distribute food assistance before the school year ends. While life has returned to normal in many ways, families are still struggling with pandemic-related rises in food costs. Montana must act now to keep kids from wondering where their next meal will come from when the end of the school year bell rings.
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.