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Nebraska governor changes course, says state will use federal funding to feed children

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen has changed course and now says he will accept federal funding to help feed hungry children during summer break.

LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen reversed course Monday and announced the state would accept about $18 million in federal funding to help feed hungry children during summer break.

Pillen announced in December that the state would reject the funding, defending his position by saying, “I don’t believe in welfare.” But he came under intense pressure, particularly from some members of his party, to accept the money.

At a news conference Monday, Pillen said he decided to accept the money allocated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after meeting with a group of Nebraska high school students who visited the Capitol in state this month.

The Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children – or Summer EBT – program was widely used as part of federal aid made available during the COVID-19 pandemic and then made permanent in 2022. It provides preloaded EBT cards to families low-income, those whose children qualify for free and reduced-price lunches at school, and those who already receive food assistance, Medicaid and other assistance programs. These families would receive $40 per eligible child for each of the three summer months. The cards can be used for groceries, similar to how SNAP benefits are used.

Pressure from lawmakers, particularly those in rural areas, also played a role in Pillen’s change of heart. 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. in progress. But critics have countered that not all families have access to on-site programs, particularly in Nebraska’s vast rural swathes, where sites can be far from struggling families.

A bill from Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, would have forced the state to accept federal funding. Bipartisan support for the package became clear when Republican Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island made Day’s bill his priority for the session, giving it a good chance of being debated by the full House. Legislative Assembly.

Aguilar was among two dozen Republican lawmakers who appeared with Pillen at Monday’s news conference.

Nebraska was one of 15 states — all led by Republican governors — that opted out of receiving funding this year. Those states include neighboring Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds has 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 stood by her rejection of the funding.

State Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, thanked Pillen for deciding to accept the funding.

“This shows that all voices make a positive difference, and that working hard and building support across the state and across the political spectrum on common issues to help Nebraskans and bring back our tax dollars is a victory for everyone,” Hunt tweeted. .

The deadline for states to say they would participate this summer was Jan. 1, but the USDA extended it until Thursday.

Pillen said Monday that Nebraska officials have already contacted the USDA to confirm the state will participate this year.

The USDA did not immediately respond to questions about whether any of the other 14 holdout states had indicated Monday whether they would participate this year, but said the agency is committed to working with those who are ” operationally ready to participate successfully in 2024.”

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