Nebraska governor stands firm on rejecting federal money to feed food-insecure children

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s Republican governor on Friday reiterated his refusal of $18 million in federal funding to help feed children who would otherwise go hungry while school is out.

Nebraska will not participate in the 2024 Summer Electronic Child Benefit Transfer, or Summer EBT, program, Gov. Jim Pillan said in a written statement. The announcement came as advocates for low-income children and families held a news conference outside the governor’s mansion in Lincoln to urge Pilon to change his mind before a Jan. 1 deadline to sign up for the program.

The program — part of federal assistance provided during the COVID-19 pandemic — will provide preloaded EBT cards to families whose children qualify for free and reduced-price school lunch. These families will receive $40 per eligible child per month during the summer. The cards can be used to buy groceries, similar to how SNAP benefits are used.

“Covid-19 is over, and Nebraska taxpayers expect the government’s pandemic-era relief programs to end as well,” Pilon said in his statement. Pilon announced on Dec. 19 that Nebraska would not be participating in the program. He drew a storm of criticism because he later defended this position at a press conference, saying: “I don’t believe in welfare.”

Neighborly Iowa also opts out of the program, with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds announcing the decision last week, saying, “The EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

States that participate in the federal program must cover half of the administrative costs, which will cost Nebraska about $300,000. Supporters of the program note that administrative costs far outweigh the $18 million benefit, which the USDA says would benefit 175,000 Nebraska children who might otherwise go hungry on some summer days .

The advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed on Friday delivered a petition containing more than 6,100 signatures from 230 Nebraska communities urging the state to use the federal Summer EBT program. Many of the petition’s signers also included comments expressing how much the program is needed, especially in light of years of inflation that has outstripped the incomes of many households.

“Everything is expensive,” wrote one mother from Bruno, a small country town in eastern Nebraska. “I’m a single mom who works full-time, and my budget is already so stretched. My son plays sports and as a growing boy could practically eat a hole in the wall; it feels like it never stops. The extra money for food will free up money for things like bills and savings and car maintenance.

Pilon insisted Friday that the state will continue to help food-insecure children through the summer food service program, which provides meals and snacks at various locations when school is not in session. Providing services on the ground also allows providers to spot and report problems such as malnutrition, neglect and child abuse, he said.

But critics say not all families have access to on-site programs — especially in vast rural Nebraska, where sites can be many miles from a struggling family.

“No child has ever said, ‘I want to be born into a struggling family,'” said Jenny Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “Why should we ever doubt that people and children deserve food?”

Preston Love Jr., a longtime Omaha community advocate, on Friday questioned whether Pillen was bowing to political pressure by rejecting federal funding.

“I know the governor a little and he seems like a reasonable person. He is a person who is compassionate in conversations,” Love said. “This is not typical of me. So obviously he doesn’t follow his heart. He follows his policy. He falls victim to political posturing and there is no excuse for it when it comes to children.

As of Friday, 28 other states and six other U.S. territories and Indian tribes had confirmed participation, according to the USDA.

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