Montanans need healthy, fresh food to work hard, care for their loved ones, and enjoy their communities. Kids, seniors, working parents, individuals with disabilities, and those living in rural and tribal communities – all deserve healthy food. Even before the pandemic, many Montanans did not have adequate food access, with more than 110,000 Montanans, including nearly one in six children, living in homes that struggle with hunger. We know this past year made accessing that basic life necessity even more difficult for many. Visits to Montana food pantries increased by 36% in 2020 compared to 2019.
Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has provided Montana with critical funding for COVID-relief. There are several ways these funds will help ease food insecurity for families around the state.
Much of the food assistance money will automatically go towards a temporary 15% boost to SNAP benefits. This increase means about $28 more per person each month, helping families afford rising food prices and stretch their budgets to afford housing and other necessities. SNAP is our most important and impactful anti-hunger program, providing nine meals for every one meal provided through the nationwide network of food banks. Funds will also help our state establish online SNAP purchasing, modernizing SNAP and improving food access. But there is so much more the Legislature can do.
The state should use every federal dollar to best support stability for Montanans. Legislators should support Double SNAP Dollars – a program that helps SNAP customers afford fresh, local foods while directly benefitting Montana’s growers and producers. More support is needed for K-12 students to access affordable meals at school, ensuring that all kids have the nutrition needed to learn and thrive.
Legislators should also allocate funding to provide for SNAP caseworkers in rural areas, helping to undo some of the devastating impacts of the 2017 budget cuts that forced the closure of 19 Offices of Public Assistance.
For families to come out of this pandemic and move forward, we need to think bigger. Montana has ample emergency assistance coming in from the federal government. There are various buckets of funding for housing, K-12, childcare, food security, and so much more. The Legislature must seize this opportunity to address some of the long-standing problems that contribute to hunger and food insecurity in our state – like access to affordable childcare and housing – that were here before 2020, but COVID made so much worse.
Our legislators have the power to dramatically improve the lives of people in our state, which will help create the economic conditions to move Montana to the future we all want. We want a state where everyone has a place to call home, healthy food on the table, and kids in quality childcare and schools. We want everyone to have a job that pays them a respectable wage so they can care for their family and save for the future.
The state should not abandon the thousands of people that the pandemic has pushed into crisis, to instead give tax breaks to the wealthy. Food is an important step forward and now we have the funds to do more. We can fund the programs we were told for years that there was no money for. This is how Montana can rebound from 2020.
Call your legislator today and tell them to use the federal funds as they were intended — to help families.
Gayle Carlson is the CEO of the Montana Food Bank Network.