Idaho opts out of nearly $15 million that would feed children this summer. Why? - East Idaho News

Idaho opts out of nearly $15 million that would feed children this summer. Why?

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(Idaho Statesman) — Idaho has decided not to participate in a federal program that would have provided $14.8 million to feed low-income students during the summer, a decision that impacts about 123,000 children in need, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

The program, known as summer Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT), provides meals for children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. It started in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to fight hunger in the summer, when the school meal safety net disappears.

Though Idaho participated fully in 2021, and partly last year, state agencies said they will no longer be involved in the program. The state would have had to submit a plan for the program by July 14.

It’s unclear who ultimately decided Idaho would reject the funding and why. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, one of two agencies that would have had to implement P-EBT, pinned the decision on the Idaho State Department of Education. The Department of Education blames the administration of former Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, who was voted out last year. Ybarra did not respond to requests for comment.

There are still options if families can’t afford to feed their children during the summer, but they may be more cumbersome, because they require parents to take their children to a physical meal site. Those sites reached just 17% of eligible children last year, according to one expert.

“(The two agencies) keep bantering back and forth, but they don’t come up with any solutions,” said Denise Dixon, director of the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force, an organization that coordinates resources to fight food insecurity in the state. “To me, it’s criminal. To me, it’s criminal not to feed our children (when) we have federal funds sitting there.”

What is Pandemic EBT?

The money for the Pandemic EBT program comes from the federal government through the Department of Agriculture and goes to students who receive free or reduced meals at school during the academic year. Their families get the funds, about $6 a day, but capped at $120 per child, on cards they can use to purchase groceries.

The program started as a monetary replacement to free and reduced-price lunches while schools were closed for COVID-19, said Crystal FitzSimons, a policy expert on child nutrition programs at the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that fights food insecurity.

Krista Ruffini, a Georgetown University economist who has written about the program, said P-EBT reduced the number of families reporting they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat by 28% during its first two weeks. Nationally, millions of children were “lifted out of poverty,” she said.

Then, Congress expanded the program under the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021 so that it would cover children during the summer. That allowed P-EBT to give additional assistance to schoolchildren as well as children under 6 years old enrolled in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Why won’t Idaho participate?

Idaho is in the minority. Most states — 42, plus the District of Columbia — are taking part, FitzSimons said. There is no permanent financial burden because the administrative expenses a state incurs to run the program are reimbursed by the federal government.

Idaho participated fully in the summer of 2021. But last year, the state only issued benefits to children up to 6 years old. The state made that change because the State Department of Education did not have the staff to do their part in running the program, said Kristin Matthews, the Department of Health and Welfare’s SNAP program manager. Administering the full P-EBT program requires the cooperation of the two agencies, she said.

The State Department of Education told Health and Welfare it “just didn’t have the capacity and resources to continue at that point,” she told the Statesman. “We haven’t been able to continue since then.”

The State Department of Education’s child nutrition program would have to examine school lunch data to determine eligibility. Then, Health and Welfare’s SNAP program would use that data to put the federal money on cards with which families could buy food. Health and Welfare continued P-EBT for younger children last year because they could qualify them with SNAP information that the agency already had, Matthews said.

The part of the program geared to younger children ended in May, with the end of the federal COVID-19 public health emergency.

State Department of Education officials acknowledged some of the internal issues Health and Welfare attributed to their agency.

The database that the department used early in the pandemic was temporary, and doing the program again would have required a new system, Lynda Westphal, the Department of Education’s child nutrition director, told the Statesman in a phone interview. In addition, she said, staff members who were available during the pandemic when the department was not doing reviews of school lunch programs are no longer free to run the program.

Scott Graf, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email that Ybarra’s administration made the decision not to participate in early 2022. The department could have changed course this year, he conceded, but it would have been difficult.

“I think we just relied on the decision that was previously made because that’s the way it was done before,” said Greg Wilson, chief of staff for Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield.

Asked whether Health and Welfare discussed participating in the program with the Department of Education, Health and Welfare SNAP Manager Matthews said, “I don’t recall if there was or not” a conversation. Health and Welfare spokesperson Greg Stahl did not respond to a follow-up question requesting more information about the contact between the departments regarding P-EBT this year.

Hunger Relief Task Force Director Dixon said communication between the agencies “fell apart” during the pandemic. Ybarra’s administration wouldn’t give Health and Welfare the data they needed for P-EBT, she said.

“All of a sudden, the Department of Ed was like, ‘We can’t do this. We don’t have the capacity,’ ” she said. “Capacity seems to be a big word in our state offices. They don’t have the capacity, they don’t have the workers to put forth the effort to get the data to them. Capacity to me is not a reason to not feed children. You figure it out.”

The two departments have discussed participating in a new, similar federal program starting next year called Summer EBT, Maggie Reynolds, another State Department of Education spokesperson, said in an email. Unlike P-EBT, it will require the state to cover half of the administrative costs. That means the State Department of Education or Health and Welfare will need to ask the Idaho Legislature for money to participate, she said.

Gov. Brad Little’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment about the opt-out this summer and whether he’d support a funding request for next year.

Idaho has a history of spurning federal funds. Republican lawmakers turned down federal money for child care earlier this year, and the state lost access to tens of millions in rental assistance after failing to meet federal conditions, according to previous Statesman reporting.

Dixon said that so often, Idaho officials are proud of rejecting federal funding, “yet people can’t afford their rent, they can’t afford to feed their kids. So how could you be proud of that?”

Meal sites reach ‘a fraction’ of qualifying kids

Last month, Jennifer Horton didn’t pay her power bill so she could buy groceries. But when she was receiving P-EBT for her children, it was easier to manage her expenses, she told the Statesman.

Horton, 50, of Boise, who is a full-time student and works part-time at a bakery, said P-EBT “didn’t cover everything, but it definitely helped” her care for her 12-year-old daughter and 16-year-old nephew, over whom she has guardianship.

Her husband died six years ago, and she lives on death benefits and child support payments for her nephew. She makes too much money to qualify for SNAP, she said, but she still doesn’t have enough money to buy food.

In the summer, her household only eats two meals a day because three would be too expensive. With P-EBT, her children could eat three meals every day, she said, but this summer, they can only afford breakfast and dinner.

Idaho has meal sites, often at local schools and parks, that provide breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each meal may be at a separate place. That program is “another safety net,” Graf said.

But Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center said the meal site initiative — which requires children to go to a physical location instead of putting money on a card — has its limits.

“That reaches only a fraction of the kids who participate in free and reduced-price school meals during the school year,” she said. There aren’t a lot of sites and transportation can prove a barrier, she said, especially in a state like Idaho with lots of rural areas.

About 21,000 kids participated in summer lunch programs in Idaho last year, FitzSimons said. That’s just 17% of the children who would have been eligible. And some of the sites don’t stay open for the whole summer. Some will close as early as July 20, according to a meal location finder on the federal Department of Agriculture website.

Children shouldn’t have to go to a park to get lunch, Horton said. It’s inconvenient for parents who work, she said, and don’t want their children outside on their own during the day.

She said the state was sending a bad message with its decision to opt out of P-EBT.

“It’s trauma that they’re causing to these children and parents, to a certain extent,” Horton said. “It’s inadvertent trauma. ‘No, we don’t think that it’s important enough for us to do this, even though there’s money on the table. We could feed you, but we’re gonna choose not to.’”