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Lawmaker seeks to reverse Nebraska governor's rejection of federal child food funding

Weeks after Republican Gov. Jim Pillen announced Nebraska would not accept federal funds to feed children in need over the summer, an Omaha lawmaker is pushing her bill to require the state to accept the $18 million for children who might otherwise go hungry at times when schools are closed.

Pillen’s rejection of the funding in December drew a firestorm of vocal condemnation when he defended his position by stating, “I don’t believe in welfare.”

Omaha Sen. Jen Day presented her bill Thursday to the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, seeking to reverse Pillen's rejection. Even if the bill were to pass, the deadline for a state to declare participation this summer was Jan. 1, although the federal government has sometimes allowed exceptions in other programs, officials have said.

The Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children — or Summer EBT — program was widely employed as part of federal assistance made available during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then made permanent in 2022. It provides pre-loaded EBT cards to families whose children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches at school; some 150,000 children in Nebraska were eligible in the 2022-2023 school year. Those families would receive $40 per eligible child per month over the summer. The cards can be used to buy groceries, similar to how SNAP benefits are used.

Nebraska is among more than a dozen states — all with Republican governors — that have opted out of receiving the funding. Those states include neighboring Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds criticized the federal food program as doing “nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.

Day, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature, has found a Republican ally in her effort: state Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island. Aguilar has prioritized Day's bill, giving it a good chance of being debated by the full Legislature this session.

Aguilar said the issue has brought a flood of calls from constituents in his largely rural district asking that he support the program. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing a steady increase in food insecurity among Nebraska families could help explain that flood of calls, Day said.

According to the statistics, 10.7% of Nebraska households were food insecure in 2017. That percentage rose to 12.1% five years later in 2022. It was 13.5% in 2023, Day said.

“This places Nebraska above the national average and gives us the 11th highest food insecurity in the nation,” she said. “As many of you know, food is more expensive than ever, and it’s squeezing low-income Nebraska residents hardest."

Following the backlash to his rejection of the Summer EBT funding, Pillen released a statement that Nebraska would continue to help food-insecure children through the Summer Food Service Program, which provides meals and snacks at various sites when school is not in session. Providing on-site services also allows providers to spot and report issues such as malnutrition, neglect and abuse in children, he said.

But Day and other critics countered that not all families have access to the on-site programs — particularly in Nebraska’s vast rural stretches, where sites can be many miles away from a struggling family.

Seventeen people — many of them representing food pantries and services — testified Thursday in favor of Day's bill, and another 153 people sent in letters of support. No one testified in opposition, but four people sent in letters opposed to the bill.

Thirty-five states, all five U.S. territories and four tribes have opted into the program this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and nearly 21 million children in the U.S. and its territories are expected to receive food benefits this summer through it.