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Billings nonprofit reacts to state's ending of federal pandemic-era aid

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Posted at 10:29 PM, Jun 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-05 12:50:14-04

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program takes care of about 73,000 children in Montana, and the state will not participate this summer.

As it turns out, it's just one area where people are finding some challenges.

Family Service offers food at its client choice food room.

It's one of the sources of food that will prevent people from starving.

"They have the dignity of shopping for their own family, and then still have the meals to provide," said Felicia Berg, Family Service development director. "So an individual or family can come in once a week and get a week's worth of food."

But Family Service and the state say people are struggling with more than finding food.

"Gas is expensive," said Wren Greaney, Montana Food Bank Network advocacy manager. "Childcare is expensive right now. So we're looking at all these different pressures on families and we're really seeing that they need these benefits."

The Montana Food Bank Network wrote a letter signed by several organizations to Gov. Greg Gianforte.

They protested the administration's choice to opt out early of the pandemic electronic benefit transfer program.

Proponents say it would have provided $10 million worth of food assistance for children this summer.

"For this particular type of program that offers these particular families this EBT benefit, there's nothing else that would replace it for this current time period," said Greaney.

MTN News contacted the governor's office, which referred questions to the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), which has not returned a message.

However, in an email response to Montana Public Radio, obtained by Q2, DPHHS communications director Jon Ebelt stated:

"Primarily, P-EBT is intended to offset the loss of access to school lunch due to the pandemic. School closures have not occurred this school year the same as during the pandemic. This was meant to be a temporary program.  With the end of the PHE on May 11, 2023 – federal fiscal year 2023 will be the final year for which any child will be eligible to receive P-EBT benefits."

"In addition, the reality is the requirements of the P-EBT program are labor intensive for both school districts and DPHHS. The program does not follow traditional SNAP processes or rules. Instead, it requires manual processes for data integrity, quality control and benefits issuance, which is a significant administrative burden for what was meant to be a temporary program. "

"This is our tax dollars coming back to help our community and especially our children in our communities," said Penny Ronning, Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force co-founder and co-chair.

Ronning says not having the program could also have some other negative impacts.

"You're going to have a parent that is going to have to make a decision," Ronning said. "Do I pay for food today? Do I pay our rent?"

The Montana Food Bank Network hopes the news will inspire or help in other ways.

"DPHHS, I certainly hope that this raises to a priority level for them," said Greaney.