USDA gets firsthand look at "adaptable" Montana summer meal programs

USDA Summer Meal Program
Posted at 6:51 PM, Jun 28, 2024

HELENA — On Friday, representatives with the U.S. Department of Agriculture were in Helena, getting a firsthand look at an effort bringing together federal, state and local partners to make sure children are getting meals through the summer months.

They visited Memorial Park and the Lewis and Clark Library, two sites where Helena’s summer meal program hands out free meal bags to any families with children. Each child received six meals to take home for Friday and the weekend.

It’s part of the national “SUN Meals to Go” program, one of three summer nutrition programs the USDA is highlighting.

“The piece that's most impressive, and what we see in places like Montana, is how incredibly adaptable the programs are when you have these big geographic expanses and a lot of varied need, the programs finding ways to operate very creatively,” said Mario Ramos, acting regional administrator for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

The SUN Meals program serves meals at neighborhood locations like parks, schools and community centers. They’re free to all children under age 18, who eat on site. The Meals to Go program is available in some rural areas and allows for pickups and deliveries – ideas that developed out of the changes made to meal programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

USDA Summer Nutrition Program
Representatives with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service visted Helena's Memorial Park, a distribution site for the local "Meals to Go" summer nutrition program.

Helena Public Schools and Sodexo sponsor the program in Helena. Robert Worthy, the school district’s food service director, says the area narrowly qualifies as rural because of its population, allowing them to use a “to go” option. He says that’s made a huge difference for them.

“Having the multi-meals allowed people to come, and it was worth their time, and all of a sudden people started showing up,” he said. “We were doubling the numbers.”

Worthy says they handed out 64,000 meals in Helena alone last summer, and they’ve already provided more than 20,000 this year.

“It's really good when people show up with their families – even though you don't have to have the kids with you present, a lot of them do come to help carry the food off, and to see the kids’ faces when they pick up the meals,” he said.

Overall, the Montana Office of Public Instruction says summer meal programs served more than 950,000 meals statewide last year – up by 27% from 2022 – at more than 250 sites. You can find a site near you on the USDA website.

Worthy says they’ll sign people up for the program at meal sites on distribution days, but he encourages families to sign up in advance. That lets them get the meals ready before they’re picked up and prepare if kids have any specific dietary needs.

USDA Summer Nutrition Program
Representatives with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service visted Helena's Memorial Park, a distribution site for the local "Meals to Go" summer nutrition program.

Montana is also one of 30 states participating in “SUN Bucks,” the new summer EBT program that provides $120 per eligible child for families to buy groceries. It evolved out of the P-EBT program that provided similar benefits during the pandemic.

SUN Bucks will be automatically available to families enrolled in programs like SNAP and TANF, as well as those eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. Other families can apply directly if they meet income limits and other requirements. You can find more information on the program here.

State leaders estimate about 70,000 children in Montana will be eligible for the summer EBT program this year.

Montana’s participation in P-EBT was uncertain the last two years. State leaders originally opted out in 2022 before getting back in when the federal government provided more flexibility. They then opted out again in 2023, citing administrative hurdles.

Ramos said USDA is working to support state partners as they introduce SUN Bucks.

“I think part of what really makes us a little bit more administratively manageable is knowing that this isn't specific to pandemic-era benefits, but this is something that we're committed to long-term in support of food security through the summer months – and in turn being able to build longer-term infrastructure and administrative apparatus to help support program implementation,” he said.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services says families will receive their allotments in late summer or early fall. A spokesperson said they had to switch from one EBT vendor to another, but they were committed to getting the program launched in 2024 as planned.