Governor changes course, says he has a ‘Nebraska way’ to provide additional food for kids

Pillen will accept $18 million for summer food program with an effort to provide ‘touch points’ for families

By: - February 12, 2024 11:04 am
jim Pillen

Gov. Jim Pillen (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Gov. Jim Pillen reversed course Monday, saying his administration will apply for $18 million in federal funds to provide extra funds for food over the summer for low-income families.

The program is expected to deliver an additional $40 a month in grocery buying funds to an estimated 150,000 kids across the state who qualify for free and reduced school lunches.

Pillen’s plan would include a stronger outreach program to families enrolled in the program — providing “touch points,” he said — in hopes of increasing children’s participation in summer camps run by the State Department of Education and helping inform families of other state aid programs.

Governor faced backlash

The about-face, which was praised by several advocacy groups for children, came after weeks of criticism on social media and in letters to newspapers, a protest vigil outside the governor’s residence, a petition signed by more than 6,000 people, as well as an effort in the Nebraska Legislature led by State Sen. Jen Day to override the governor’s refusal to take the funds.

As late as Dec. 29, Pillen, who regularly says kids are the state’s future, said he wouldn’t change his mind about accepting the funds, which he called a leftover from a now-over COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. Jen Day of Gretna (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

He later added that he didn’t believe in “welfare,” which brought more criticism because the governor, a hog producer and co-owner of a pork processing plant, has accepted federal assistance.

On Monday, Pillen said it was a conversation with Grand Island Sen. Ray Aguilar as well as a visit to Boys Town a week ago and talking with school kids involved in a youth legislative day that helped sway his opinion.

“This isn’t about winning, it’s about doing what’s best for kids in Nebraska,” he said.

“It’s been an evolution of information,” Pillen said, adding that by reaching out to participants in the program via “touch points” by state employees, he hopes to avoid the isolation kids experienced during the pandemic.

Aguilar, a co-sponsor of Day’s proposal, said he was pleased that the governor had crafted a “Nebraska solution” to “make sure kids are being cared for properly.”

‘HUGE win,’ says Day

Pillen was joined by 21 state senators — all fellow Republicans — at a Monday morning press conference announcing the change of heart.

Day, a Democrat from Gretna, who introduced a bill to enroll in the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program, called it a “HUGE win for Nebraska kids, families and local ag producers and small businesses” in a tweet.

“I want to thank the Governor for heeding the call of myself, my colleagues and countless Nebraskans who asked the Governor to rethink his decision,” Day said in a press release.

Her bill appeared stalled following a public hearing last week. Nebraska will become the 37th state to participate in the program.

Eric Savaiano of Nebraska Appleseed, an organization that advocates for the poor, said he was “thrilled” that the governor had changed his mind.

“This would not be possible without the tremendous amount of outreach and pressure the public put on our elected officials to do the right thing,” he said in a press release.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

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