State signs up for summer food program for kids but needs Legislature to commit funds

The program would help nearly 300,000 children for three months, supplementing other food assistance

By: - January 29, 2024 5:45 am
Two siblings enjoy lunch.

Siblings share lunch. (Courtesy of the Oregon Food Bank)

State officials have signed up for a three-month summer food program that would benefit nearly 300,000 children in Oregon.

The program would work much like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by giving eligible families debit cards to buy groceries. A total of $40 would be given to each eligible child from a low-income family during the summer, when they’re not eating free meals in schools.

There’s just one catch: Lawmakers have to agree to pay for half of the costs of administering the program, with the federal government paying for the rest. Jake Sunderland, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Human Services, said the department will request that the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee approve $12.7 million to fund the program for two years.

Sunderland said there’s great need for the program, with an estimated 294,000 children in Oregon likely to qualify.

“The Oregon Food Bank reports that one in five people in the state face hunger,” he said. “During the summer months, many children in families with food insecurity do not have easy access to the healthy breakfasts and lunches they get at school during the school year.” 

The Oregon Food Bank plans to support the program through outreach, along with the nonprofit Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. 

“We really believe this is a no-brainer since the program expenses are all provided federally, and Oregon just needs to invest in half of the setup and administrative costs,” said Jacki Ward Kehrwald, spokesperson for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

Oregon Food Bank and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon officials  – and Republican and Democratic lawmakers – called on the Legislature to fund the program. 

“Oregon’s leaders have been working together to get to a ‘yes’ on this common-sense program for our state’s food insecure children,” said state Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem and one of five lawmakers on the Oregon Hunger Task Force. “Our legislature must find a way to secure funding to unlock these federal dollars, and feed hundreds of thousands of young Oregonians.”

The DHS submitted a notice of intent in late December to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is administering the program, signaling its intent to participate. The agency, along with the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Education, needs to submit final details by mid-February, just over a week after the legislative session starts Feb. 5. At least 45 states, territories and tribes have signed up. That means the program likely will reach 21 million children — or around 70% of U.S. children eligible for government meal programs, officials from the USDA said.

Sunderland said lawmakers have to approve the plan the state submitted on Dec. 28, approve operations and budget plans to be submitted to the USDA and allocate funds to run the program.

“State funding is necessary and without it, the program will not be offered in 2024,” Sunderland said. “The next earliest opportunity for Oregon to offer the program will be in 2026.”

The $12.7 request to the Legislature would bring $70.5 million in food benefits for Oregon families this summer and next, Sunderland said. The federal government would pay the other $12.7 million in administrative costs.

DHS, the Oregon Health Authority and Department of Education want to add 70 positions to deploy and support the program, with 55 for DHS, eight for OHA and seven for the education department. The positions would be put in place at different stages during the biennium, Sunderland said.

About 205,000 children in Oregon whose families are already on federal assistance, like SNAP, would be automatically entered into the program, known as summer EBT. That means they would receive benefits without any action by their parents or guardians. Sunderland said families of about 84,000 other children would need to apply.

This would not be the first time Oregon has offered supplemental food assistance for children in the summer. It was one of the first states to take part in a similar program for children in 2011. It stayed in the trial program until 2018, when it no longer qualified for the grant. By then, the state was giving nearly 72,000 children $30 a month during the summer for groceries.

The state also provided extra food benefits between 2020 and 2023 as part of a pandemic relief program, benefiting about 428,000 children at a time.

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry, who has more than 30 years of journalism experience, is Oregon Capital Chronicle's editor-in-chief. She previously was editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site; reported on health in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio.

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