Utah officials declined to take $50 million from feds to feed needy children

(Sue Ogrocki | AP file photo) Kitchen assistant Maria Cedillo makes sandwiches for lunch bags at Rockwood Elementry School, in Oklahoma City Monday, March 24, 2020. Students get free lunches every day when school is in session, this is first day of free meals since schools were closed.

Washington • Utah officials declined to take some $50 million in federal aid to help get food to needy children in the state because it would have been too complex a task in a short amount of time.

But with an increase in food stamp payments and school systems still providing breakfast and lunches to those who qualify, state officials say no child is going hungry by passing up the federal program.

“Even though the feds were offering that money, we felt confident that the need was being met and … we were able to have these other programs in place to help fulfill that need,” Nate McDonald, assistant deputy director of the Department of Workforce Services, said Wednesday.

Congress created the program called Pandemic EBT as part of its first bill to provide relief to Americans and the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, but many states have struggled to manage the effort. In short, the program is aimed at getting food to children who would have qualified for low- or no-cost meals in school by offering funds on an electronic card families could use at grocery stores.

Utah is one of 17 states that didn't opt in.

Other states that did join the program have faced difficulties in collecting lists of those who qualify for low- or no-cost meals from schools and creating a program to provide an electronic card to ship out to tens of thousands of families, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

By May 15, The Times said, about 15% of eligible children had received benefits. Only 12 states had started to send out any money and only two, Michigan and Rhode Island, had finished, the newspaper said.

McDonald said Utah’s Workforce Services decided it wouldn’t join the program because by the time the technical and logistical issues were worked out and cards mailed, it would have left only a couple of weeks in the school year to provide the benefits.

Instead, the department hiked payments under the existing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to help families now faced with feeding children during the school week. An average family of four in Utah will now receive $646 a month in SNAP benefits, almost double the $346 a month offered previously, McDonald said.

Schools are still offering free breakfast and lunch and a “weekend backpack” of meals, he added, so no one in the state should be going without because schools have been shuttered.

Still, some critics are questioning the state’s decision, given that most other states have at least tried to make it work.

“My understanding of the whole program, it has been complex in terms of interoperability,” says Moe Hickey, chief executive of Voices for Utah Children. “But, given that everybody else is trying to work those things out as well, I think it’s a missed opportunity for us to bring needed resources to the state at this time. And I think, unfortunately, we have a history of turning our back on federal programs because they’re federal programs.”

Hickey cited the state Legislature’s decision not to opt into an expanded Medicaid program that was part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, that would have covered thousands more Utahns with health insurance. The state adopted the expansion only after voters approved a ballot initiative and then lawmakers imposed restrictions, most of which have now fallen by the wayside.

“And so, you know, I think chalking it up to complexity of implementation when everybody else has gone through the same thing is kind of an easy explanation,” Hickey adds. “I think it's probably something that we should have looked at.”

State Rep. Brian King, the House minority leader, said he's looking into why the state passed on the funding.

“I am looking into this,” the Salt Lake City Democrat tweeted. “It is problematic to me.”