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Nebraska has until January 1 to opt in to food assistance for 150,000 children

© iStock - Mukhina1
Deborah Van Fleet

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(Nebraska News Connection) Roughly one in eight Nebraskans who have experienced hunger is a child. The state has a chance to help their families afford groceries, but must 'opt in' to a federal program to do so.

During the COVID Public Health Emergency, families with children eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school also received Pandemic EBT funding to help them afford groceries during school closures and summer vacation. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering a similar program, Summer EBT, on a permanent basis.

Eric Savaiano, food and nutrition access program manager for the nonprofit Nebraska Appleseed, said a huge number of Nebraska children could benefit, but the state must opt in to the program.

"It's an option for states to take this program up," Savaiano explained. "And there is a small investment that's needed to authorize it. But it would pull down $18 million in benefits to be distributed to about 150,000 kids."

Savaiano explained the state would pay about $300,000 annually in administrative costs, and Nebraska families would receive $120 per eligible child for groceries in the summer. 

The deadline for states to let the USDA know they are interested is January 1. Nebraska is not among the 14 states and two tribal nations that have signed on so far.

Savaiano argued Nebraska children have a lot to gain and the state has little to lose by signing on in time.

"Even indicating interest does not actually lock us into participation," Savaiano pointed out. "It would just give us the opportunity to participate, while some of these final regulations for this brand-new program are released. But I think we might be out of luck if we don't even indicate our interest by January 1st."

Just over 12 percent of Nebraskans experience food insecurity. Savaiano observed the state's rural nature probably contributes to the figure, which is higher than the national average. But he added the state has refused "time and time again" to participate in federal programs that could have helped reduce food insecurity.

"Through the pandemic, there were lots of federal assistance programs that we refused -- sometimes first in the nation, or we ended very early -- that made it harder for people to get the food that they need," Savaiano noted.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment on the state's plans regarding the Summer EBT program.