A panel of lawmakers and state officials on Thursday held an “emergency” meeting to authorize a temporary expansion of federal benefits to help low-income women and their families purchase additional fruit and vegetables, just in time for a June deadline that had slipped beyond the notice of the Legislature as it works to spend a billion-plus dollars in COVID-19 aid from the U.S. government.
Under the expanded program, Montanans who receive Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — or WIC — benefits will see an increase in their payments for produce up to $35 a month for a four-month period ending September 30. States that opted-in to the expanded benefit, a group that includes Montana, needed to take advantage of the opportunity by the beginning of the four-month term in June.
The monthly cash-value voucher for fruit and vegetable purchases is in normal times $9 per child and $11 for women who are pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding. In other words, the boost, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, can more than triple the fruit and vegetable voucher for some who qualify. Montana’s WIC participation hovers around 14,000 people; around 10,000 could see the expanded fruit-and-vegetable payments, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services said.
The annual income threshold for a family of four to receive WIC benefits is $48,470.
“It’s really important,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who sits on the Health Advisory Commission that approved the payments Thursday. “I think of pregnant women, infants and children being able to put more fresh fruit and vegetables into their bellies, and that’s a really good thing for this summer.”
The commission is one of four steering groups that were formed under House Bill 632, legislation implementing and authorizing payments under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture notified states of the ability to take advantage of the expanded funds in March. But the Legislature didn’t specifically authorize the benefit during the session, and the ARPA advisory commissions aren’t slated to meet regularly until June 3, by which point it would be too late to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Health Advisory Commission wasn’t scheduled to meet Thursday until the Montana Food Bank Network, the Montana Association of WIC Agencies and Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies notified lawmakers on the committee, the governor and DPHHS director Adam Meier that the state still had to authorize the benefits soon or else become the only state to opt-in to the expansion and not take advantage of it.
The Food Bank Network learned last week that local WIC clinics were holding off on issuing June benefits as they didn’t know how much of the fruit and vegetable payments to allocate, said Lorianne Burhop, the network’s policy director. Administering payments can be a time-intensive process as clinics distribute individual benefit packages to WIC-eligible families in the region, so the clinics needed guidance soon in order to begin sending out payments.
“Nearly one in six kids in this state live in a food insecure home,” Burhop said. “WIC reaches kids at their most critical points in development.”
That outreach effort began last week, meaning that the meeting to approve the funds came together in a handful of days.
“We never intended to hold up the process — we wanted to make sure that pregnant women, children and infants get fresh vegetables and fruit,” Caferro said. “The way the human services ARPA funding works, there’s so many wonderful opportunities to strengthen families and so we missed this.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 24, 2021 to clarify that both lawmakers and administration officials serve on the Health Advisory Commission.