Nebraska governor reverses course and says state will take federal funding to feed children
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen reversed course on Monday and announced that the state will accept roughly $18 million in federal funding to help feed hungry children over the summer break.
Pillen announced in December that the state would reject the funding, defending his position by stating, “I don’t believe in welfare.” But he came under intense pressure, including from some members of his party, to accept the money.
At a news conference Monday, Pillen said he decided to accept money allocated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture after meeting with a group of high school students from around Nebraska who visited the state Capitol this month.
“They talked about being hungry, and they talked about the summer USDA program and, depending upon access, when they'd get a sack of food,” Pillen said. “And from my seat, what I saw there, we have to do better in Nebraska.”
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 low-income families, those whose children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches at school, and those who are already on food assistance, Medicaid and other assistance programs. Those families would receive $40 per eligible child for each of three summer months. The cards can be used to buy groceries, similar to how SNAP benefits are used.
Pressure from lawmakers, particular those from rural areas, also played a part in Pillen's about-face. The governor previously argued that Nebraska would continue to help food-insecure children through the Summer Food Service Program, a separate program that provides meals and snacks at various sites when school is not in session. But critics countered that not all families have access to the on-site programs, particularly in Nebraska’s vast rural stretches, where the sites can be far from struggling families.
A bill from state Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, would have forced the state to accept the federal funding. The bipartisan support for the program became clear when Republican state Sen. Ray Aguilar, of Grand Island, made Day's bill his priority for the session, giving it a good chance to be debated by the full Legislature.
Aguilar was among two dozen Republican lawmakers who appeared with Pillen at Monday's news conference.
Nebraska was one of 15 states — all with Republican governors — that opted out of receiving the funding this year. 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."
Reynolds' office declined to answer questions Monday about whether she is holding to her rejection of the funding.
State Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, thanked Pillen for deciding to accept the funding.
“This goes to show that all voices make a positive difference, and that hard work and building support across the state and across the political spectrum on common ground issues to help Nebraskans and bring our tax dollars home is a win for everyone,” Hunt tweeted.
The deadline for states to declare that they are participating this summer had been Jan. 1, but the USDA extended it to Thursday.
Pillen said Monday that Nebraska officials had already reached out to the USDA to confirm that the state would participate this year.
The USDA did not immediately answer questions about whether any of the other 14 holdout states had indicated by Monday if they would participate this year, but said the agency is committed to working with those that are “operationally ready to participate successfully in 2024.”
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