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Food banks

More than 105,000 low-income Montanans received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in October. SNAP provided an average of $1.40 per meal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposes to reduce that aid by an average of $50 per month for 43% of Montana families now receiving SNAP.

Such a cut would increase financial hardship on struggling families while effectively taking money out of the Montana economy and increasing the burden on local food banks and other charities that provide nutrition for low-income Montanans.

Montana would be one of the states hardest hit by the proposed rule change, according to USDA's own analysis. The rule change would cut benefits to Montanans by 8.25%. Considering that SNAP pumps $12 million a month into Montana communities as recipients buy groceries at local markets, the budget crunch for low-income individuals would translate into reduced sales — thousands of dollars a month — for grocers in all 56 counties.

All of Montana's neighbor states (Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Idaho) would see decreases in SNAP benefits under this change as would every state bordering Canada. The northern tier is most affected because USDA proposes to reduce the utility allowance states use in calculating SNAP eligibility and benefit amounts.

For now, states are allowed to set the utility allowance so it reflects what heat and power actually cost low-income people in the state. USDA proposes to "standardize" the allowance. Some states in the South would see increased SNAP benefits, but overall, the rule change is projected to save the federal government $4.5 billion over five years if it takes effect in October 2020.

Nationwide, the new rule would cut benefits for 19.21% of SNAP households nationwide by and average of $32, while 14.75% of SNAP households got an increase averaging $14.

The only winners in this deal are administration officials who want to reduce government spending by taking groceries away from low-income Americans. These are the same policy makers who delivered enormous tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans just before Christmas 2017.

Last summer, USDA announced SNAP rule changes that would reduce the number of Americans eligible for food aid. Now the Trump administration has proposed to  shrink aid for millions of those who remain eligible.

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The formula for calculating SNAP eligibility and benefits is complicated, but the results of the proposed tinkering are clear: Less food assistance for families across America, especially in states with cold winters and relatively high utility bills like Montana.

In a Gazette guest opinion printed on Nov. 24, Lorianne Burhop of Montana Food Bank Network noted that about 37,000 children are in Montana households that rely on SNAP for part of their groceries. 

"While Montana has a robust network of hardworking food pantries and other emergency food providers, we also need strong anti-hunger programs such as SNAP to make sure that no one in our state goes hungry," Burhop wrote.

As of October, Montana SNAP participants included 16,281 people in Yellowstone County, 3,936 in Big Horn County, 3,356 in Gallatin County, 1,795 in Rosebud County, 960 in Custer County, 706 in Fergus County and 517 in Richland County. SNAP helps prevent hunger all across our state.

These are our neighbors whose burden would be heavier if the latest Trump administration SNAP cutback is implemented.

Asked to comment, Sheila Hogan, director of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services replied: “We urge Montanans to make their thoughts known on the proposed rule change at the federal level. It’s important to note this program services children, individuals with disabilities and seniors. SNAP helps thousands of hard-working Montanans with a portion of their monthly food budget and helps local businesses. Again, I urge everyone to be aware about the proposed changes and comment on them.” 

The USDA is accepting formal public comment only through Dec. 2, which is tomorrow. Please consider taking the time today to register your concerns about reducing food aid to low income children, elders and disabled persons. Look for the COMMENT NOW button in the top right corner of the screen at https://www.regulations.gov./document?D=FNS-2019-0009-0001

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.