Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen’s administration has said no to participating in a new, more permanent Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program aimed at supplementing other efforts that target child hunger. A legislative bill aims to force the governor’s hand in participating. (Courtesy of Scott Olson/Getty Images)
LINCOLN — At age 55, Dr. Karla Lester said, she is just now able to talk publicly about her childhood shame: hunger.
Speaking Thursday to a legislative committee, the Lincoln pediatrician was among 17 proponents who urged lawmakers to adopt a proposal — against Gov. Jim Pillen’s wishes — that would require Nebraska to participate in the national Summer EBT food program for kids.
The program, which would provide an estimated $18 million in grocery-buying federal funds to about 150,000 low-income Nebraska youths, has become a high-profile hot potato. Pillen has objected to the state joining the program, saying he did not “believe in welfare.”
Lester said she understands, from personal experience, the “stigma and shame” that a child feels knowing that lunch or dinner is not an automatic. “It was kind of like a secret,” she said.
At this point in her life and career, Lester said: “I can’t sit by and think we’re just going to let these funds go.”
Priority bill for Sen. Ray Aguilar
State Sen. Jen Day of Gretna, who introduced Legislative Bill 952, told the Health and Human Services Committee that the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program would cost Nebraska about $400,000 to administer annually. The state said there would be one-time startup costs, as well.
State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island has made the bill his priority, so it will have a better chance of reaching full legislative debate.
No one spoke against the proposal, though four letters of opposition were submitted electronically. Another 153 people sent letters of support.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which would oversee the EBT program, did not send a representative to speak at the hearing but did submit a letter taking a neutral stance.
“It was nice to see a neutral,” Day said.
The DHHS letter did not discuss the Summer EBT program. Rather, it focused on benefits of other existing food-related programs the state offers to low-income families.
Though a Jan. 1 federal deadline has passed for states to declare their interest in participating in this summer’s program, Day said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has signaled that it would be willing to work with Nebraska.
As of today, 35 states, the District of Columbia and 10 tribes and U.S. territories have opted into Summer EBT, according to the USDA.
Pillen doubled down
In the program, help comes in the form of pre-loaded EBT cards that families can use to purchase groceries. Eligible families will receive $40 per child, per month during the three summer months.
The benefits complement and do not discount other available programs such as SNAP and WIC.
Pillen earlier doubled down on his refusal to opt into the program.
In a letter to constituents just before the new year, he said: “COVID-19 is over and Nebraska taxpayers expect that pandemic-era government relief programs will end too.”
The governor has said that an existing summer food program, which distributes lunches at summer school and summer camps, is sufficient. He touted that program as interactive, saying it included reading, nutrition education and physical activities.
Multiple speakers on Thursday said, however, that Nebraska has low participation at those sites, especially in rural areas.
Logan Nungesser, a 15-year-old Lincoln student, said she and her two siblings appreciated the use of pandemic-era EBT cards. They allowed her family to go to the grocery store and buy food.
The teen “invited” the lawmakers to come to the level of students using food programs.
“If a summer meal site does exist, it is again the child that shoulders the embarrassment and stigma of attending,” Nungesser said. “Do you remember being a teenager? This alone is enough for a student to decide not to show up.”
Many who addressed the committee said the program would benefit businesses as well as youths.
Rasna Sethi, an analyst at OpenSky Policy Institute of Nebraska, said $18 million in food benefits should result in about $30 million into the Nebraska economy.
Brian Barks, president and CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland, said one of every eight Nebraskans who are hungry is a child. “And that is unacceptable,” he said.
He said the Summer EBT program would alleviate increased demand on state food banks.
Modeled after pilot projects and a nationwide pandemic-era initiative that’s now ended, Congress authorized the more permanent Summer EBT program via the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023.
The push by advocates to join the summer food program accelerated prior to the new year, in part with a petition delivered to Pillen that contained more than 6,000 signatures from 200-plus communities.
A group of 15 state senators, led by Day, stepped in with a letter to the DHHS, asking the administration to rethink the situation.
None of that worked, so Day introduced LB 952.
The HHS Committee took no action Thursday on whether to move the bill forward to the full Legislature.
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